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The team sprint: it’s the youngest event on the Olympic program, having been contested only since the 2006 Torino Games. The event has since become a marquee event in the sport of cross country skiing.
Holding it up as a marquee event, of course, is easier to say coming from the United States. If you tuned into the NBC broadcast, you got the delight of hearing 2018 team sprint gold medalist Kikkan Randall analyze the race where she won the US’s only gold medal in cross country skiing, while her teammate from that race, Jessie Diggins, worked to repeat the Olympic medal feat.
Yes, the team sprint was that race, and we could all revel in that memory as it played out in Zhangjiakou, China on Wednesday.
Beyond that, though, no other event exemplifies the nuances involved in modern skiing like the team sprint. This is an event that pairs the specialists with the even-more specialized, and has an err of a nordic nerd’s daydream to the team-selection possibilities that arise from doing so.
What if you lined up the two athletes who single-handedly changed a generation of skiers together under one flag? Well, they’d turn out to win gold in Pyeongchang 2018, like when Johannes Høsflot Klæbo and Martin Johnsrud Sundy were paired as team Norway. What if you repeated when Finland won gold in Sochi 2014, but this time Iivo Niskanen, who was then seemingly untouchable as a classic skier? Well, that one offers a bridge to what played out in Beijing 2022.
Of course, hypotheticals joined up with storylines that didn’t need to be posed as a question today too. For the US men, this was the crystallized moment where one generation was handed off to another. Call to mind the US Olympic team sprint team anytime in the last eight years and it was the steadfast duo of Simi Hamilton and Erik Bjornsen. These men, now retired, were sixth in the team sprint in both the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and the 2018 Games in PyeongChang. Then, this morning, it was Ben Ogden and JC Schoonmaker, both born in 2000.
The two made up a pairing that was more pure-sprint oriented than most of the competitors that were most closely watched going into today. The strategy for a few of the top teams, in particular, the Russian Olympic Committee and Finland, seemed to be pairing their top-class distance skier with a sprinting specialist.
For the course in Beijing, it was a good strategy on paper. The 1.5-kilometer course, last seen in the individual sprint last week, had one tactical pressure point going into a downhill when it was raced as a single lap. When it was raced in a burst of three per skier with little rest in between, however, just how much the long, semi-gradual, uphills on this course made skiers work moved to the forefront. In the team sprint, having a skier who could stay with a sustained attack through multiple legs was an appealing prospect, especially when it was meant to set up for a punchy last climb that would no doubt give way to a mad dash for the finish.
For two teams, Norway and the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), that mad dash had been setting up since the first World Cup of the season, when 22-year-old Alexander Terentev (ROC) out-dueled sprint superstar Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (NOR) to challenge the latter’s classic sprinting dominance.
They would both ski the anchor legs on their teams. Klæbo was paired with fellow sprinter Erik Valnes to make team Norway, while Terentev was paired with 30 k skiathlon gold medalist Alexander Bolshunov to make team ROC. Finland joined the intrigue, sending out 15 k classic gold medalist Iivo Niskanen in the first leg paired with the World Cup’s perennial “oh, that’s right he’s a great sprinter too!” Joni Maki as an anchor.
As such, the teams in the final skied the first and second legs could roughly be divided into: leg 1 – the distance skiers and long-burn sprinters, and leg 2 – classic sprinting’s very best.
The US had qualified for the final as the second lucky loser, finishing a messy semi-final that saw Ben Ogden break a pole and recover to finish 6th place (+4.43 off of heat winners Italy’s mark of 20:06.99).
“It was a hard semi-final, ours was fast and everyone was pushing. [The pole break] was one of many places where we used more energy than we had to today.” said Ogden in post-race interview with FasterSkier in the mixed zone.
But as Ogden went out in the final, he seemed to settle in and leave the troubles of that semi-final behind. He looked comfortable in a pack that had settled on jockeying for position in the early part of the race, moving up to 4th place through the first exchange.
The men’s field going out relatively slowly could be attributed to Norway’s Valnes. He seemed to comprehend that with his team as a pre-race favorite, the eyes of the pack were on the “What is that?” pattern of his suit. Valnes looked to lead the pack so-as only to try and lull it into complacency. It was a strategy that made sense, knowing he would be tagging off to the current fastest human on skis in a drag race, Klæbo.
Alexander Bolshunov, though, called Valnes out on his bluff, making sure to pick up the pace just enough so that the pack would have to work throughout its first leg.
So began the stalemate that would last for much of the early legs of the race. In the first exchange to the anchor-legs, Klæbo showed outward signs of his strength, and his desire to keep the pace right in the sweet spot where he could shoot around them in the end. JC Schoonmaker, meanwhile, remained placed right off the leaders, in the pack, moving through the course.
The second showing of leg 1, including Valnes, Bolshunov, Niskanen, and Ogden saw Bolshunov push on the initial climb out of the stadium. Valnes covered the move, before the pack came together in the final climb into the stadium. The pressure, and the speed, had increased. Ben Ogden, though, had kept up with the pack, and came through the half-way mark with the Americans in 7th place (+4.4).
In their second laps, a lead group that included Terentev, Klæbo, Maki, and Schoonmaker, the pack began to take shape. The decisive move didn’t come from any of those skier’s mentioned, though, but instead from a familiar agitator in sprint heats on the World Cup. Moving up from behind the leaders, France’s Richard Jouve powered to the front of the pack on the first uphill, but was quickly matched by both Terentev and Klæbo. The duo, as they approached the downhill, put in a burst of speed that hadn’t been seen on the course up to that point, and it was all it took for the pack to begin to thin.
This was the move that saw the young American team begin to lose contact with the lead group. Schoonmaker later said that “the downhills felt tighter and more aggressive than some other World Cup sprints.”
The Americans slipped to 9th place, and remained there for the rest of the day despite the early efforts of the duo to stay locked in and pushing all the way through.
Meanwhile, at the front, the exchange to the final lap of the odd-leg skiers found Bolshunov once again putting in an attack on the uphill that led out of the stadium. The move indicated that the ROC had faith in the young Terentev as the anchor, but that chancing it with Klæbo still on deck was not the preferred option. Valnes took the ROC strategy off the table anyway, letting out a blistering counter-attack that showed his own strength and served to further separate the pack. When they came into the final climb into the stadium for the last exchange, it was just Norway, the ROC, and Finland who were in contention for the gold medal.
Finland, in fact, was the first to the exchange. That came courtesy of Niskanen, who evaded the front of the pack for much of his race. The 15 k classic champion unleashed his diagonal stride on his final climb of the day, with both efficiency and power that exemplify optimal technique.
The last lap, then, looked like a three-way pack of Finland, Norway, and the ROC, and, not far back and putting together an outstanding day, Canada (+9.7). The team of Graham Ritchie and Antoine Cyr had put in an unexpected and auspicious effort for the whole world to see.
Still, the skiers to face off for medals remained; Joni Maki (FIN), Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (NOR), Alexander Terentev (ROC).
The front three remained tight throughout the final lap. The pace was fast, but not fast enough to shake the familiar feeling that we’d been here, on this 1.5 k course, before, and it was a stage for which one player was ready to take the lead role: Klæbo.
On the last hill, Klæbo went, and proved again that he was both a master of the art of sprint racing, and still indisputably its best practitioner. He, and Norway, would repeat as gold medalists in the team sprint in a time of 19:22.99.
In comments to the press after, Klæbo said of repeating as a gold medalist, “I’m really proud, it’s special to do this together as a team. We won the team sprint in 2018, and doing it in a different way now, different style, with a different person, it’s special.”
Behind him, Joni Maki made a late effort to pull in front of Terentev and deliver Finland, and his teammate Iivo Niskanen, back to the medal ceremony that they last attended for the team sprint in 2014 by finishing second (+2.46). Terentev finished third (+4.29), ensuring that the ROC (or, for these purposes, the Olympic delegation formerly known as Russia) continued its streak of never having finished outside of the medals in the team sprint at an Olympic Games.
Sweden pulled back to fourth place (+15.06), and the surprise of the day was the young Canadian team of Ritchie and Cyr, both 23 years old, finishing in fifth place (+22.31). The Americans held the gap to +1:05.08, and finished in ninth.
Ogden and Schoonmaker came away feeling optimistic on their first go-around at the Olympic team sprint, saying “It’s good. With some experience, we can be a lot better.”
“Some more training under our belts will be a big game changer for us,” Schoonmaker continued, “[because] we’ve done zero team sprints [like this] with 3 laps. This is our first time skiing a real team sprint.”
Through its pushes-and-pulls, posturing and performances, the team sprint again proved to be a thrilling highlight of skiing. And with it completed, and a pair of gutsy performances turned in, it is possible to turn a glint of our attention today towards what the two young North American teams will do four years from now in Cortina, Italy. Really, it is just too easy to go there already, and let the Olympic dreams run wild.
That of course though, would be premature. There’s as old-school a race as they come left in Beijing on Saturday, when the 50 k freestyle will be revived on the Olympic stage. The final men’s event promises to be as pleasant a distraction from future thoughts as there is in the world of skiing. So let’s enjoy.
Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing, politics, and skiing (not necessarily all related) while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.