PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — For Swiss skier Dario Cologna, the triptych that began in 2010 was bookended here in PyeongChang on Friday during the men’s Olympic 15-kilometer freestyle race at the Alpensia cross-country center. Cologna became the first cross-country skier in Olympic history to haul in three golds in a specific men’s event: the 15 k hammerfest.
It all started at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, where Cologna won the 15 k skate. Four years later, in 2014 in Sochi, Russia, he won the 15 k classic (as well as the 30 k skiathlon). Then today, in PyeongChang, Cologna won the 15 k skate. It’s a three-chapter performance over eight years that illustrates one skier’s aptitude for longevity and the ability to remain relevant during a year when several young international skiing stars are emerging.
The 31-year-old Cologna stopped the clock Friday in 33:43.9 minutes. The 68th starter, he bested the time of Sunday’s 30 k skiathlon gold medalist, Simen Hegstad Krüger of Norway (bib 60) by 18.3 seconds, for the win.
“It’s [an] amazing feeling to win a gold medal,” Cologna said in the post-race press conference. “It’s always a lot of hard work to be on top, and now three Olympics in a row to win this event it feels very good. And I am very happy and also proud to be back again on top, and to win this gold medal for Switzerland, it’s big emotions.”
The first week of Olympic competition just about complete. With it, Krüger has become an unlikely PyeongChang story for Norway. Yes, Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo won the sprint — as expected. But Krüger winning skiathlon gold?
“When you say it, it sounds crazy,” Krüger said of his two-medal Games thus far at the press conference. “I came here to the Olympics with a dream of maybe taking one individual medal, but to suddenly stand here with one gold medal and one silver medal after two competitions is an unbelievable feeling.”
Krüger, 24, added that his preferred race format is the individual start. Krüger pounced at the opportunity to race in the skiathlon, taking the field by surprise. But Friday was a different race puzzle for Krüger and it as a race he had marked as his best medal chance.
“In a mass start you have to be prepared for a lot of different scenarios and outcomes,” Krüger said. “But when it’s an individual start it’s just you against the clock. You have to do everything by yourself, and I really enjoy that kind of skiing. That’s what I usually have been best in. With a mass start you have figure in many kinds of situations. You have to be able to ski ahead or to hang on … Today was actually my main goal going into these Olympics. This was the race I thought most of, thought I had my best chance taking a medal. So it is a really special feeling to take silver today.”
With many of Russia’s biggest names banned from the Games, 21-year-old Denis Spitsov, who started 48th, eased some of his nation’s angst by taking third (+23.0) under the team affiliation of Olympic Athletes from Russia.
“It’s not as simple as it might seem,” Spitsov said at the press conference, through a translator. “I’ve trained for a long time. It’s a lot of discipline, perseverance and hard work. Everybody wants to achieve a medal, but I was luckier than the others today, hence the result.”
But this was Cologna’s day.
The marquee event of any championships are touted as the 50- and 30-kilometer distance races. Those races are the epics: head-to-head duels where strategy could mean hiding behind in a lycra V-formation on wind-pummeled courses or lighting out on a solo longshot. The 15 k tale is stark when it comes to plot line. It’s each skier alone fighting for the fewest tens of minutes and clicks of seconds until the clock stops.
As the 68th starter in a 119-skier field, Cologna’s shakedown in this 15 k began at the halfway mark. This season’s resurgent Cologna skated by the 7.5 k timecheck in 16:18 minutes. Prior to the race, some Oslo oddsmaker might have thrown other names a favorable line: Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Canada’s Alex Harvey, France’s Maurice Manificat. The list could reasonably be ten-skiers deep.
Cologna’s 7.5 k split was 15.6 seconds up on the next fastest-skier, Manificat. (At 7.5 k, Krüger was fifth, 19.6 seconds back, while Spitsov was eighth, 31.6 seconds behind.)
In the second half of the race, Cologna was able to ramp up the effort, while the others either bled time and or couldn’t gain the meters fast enough.
When the clock stopped for all the potential podium threats, once again, Cologna proved he remains the 15 k slayer in the big show.
“It’s always hard to say,I think it’s always some details,” Cologna said of why he felt sharp during Friday’s race. “I was not 100-percent sure today about my shape. After the skiathlon of course I was a little bit disappointed.”
Cologna, a pre-race skiathlon favorite, placed sixth in that first race of the 2018 Games.
“I expected maybe a little bit more [in the skiathlon] after my win in the Tour de Ski and Seefeld,” Cologna said, referring to his pre-Olympic World Cup win in the 15 k freestyle mass start on Jan. 28 in Seefeld, Austria. “Today was just a perfect day. I started very fast from the beginning, but the feeling was still good and when I heard the times I knew there is a big chance to win a medal. And when the gap was over 20 seconds then I was quite sure it should be enough to win today.”
As an individual-start race at the Olympics, entries are opened up to qualifying skiers we often don’t associate with cross-country prowess. Of the 116 finishers, Columbia’s 42-year-old Sebastian Uprimny placed 115th and Mexico’s German Madrazo, 43, finished 116th. They were also among the last starters and Cologna them as they crossed the line.
“It’s great to see a lot of skiers,” Cologna said of the broad international field. “I think we had over 60 nations today. Of course we are fighting here for the medals, but it’s also great to see this Olympic spirit, and it’s good to see many athletes at the start who like to do this sport.”
With Krüger and Spitsov sweeping up the remaining Olympic bling in second and third respectively, Sundby’s quest for his first championship gold continued as he placed fourth, 24.9 seconds behind Cologna. Manificat skied to fifth (+27.0), and Norway’s Hans Christer Holund finished sixth (+34.5).
Canada’s Alex Harvey hung in the medal conversation through 7.5 k at which he was fourth-fastest, 1.9 seconds out of third. Harvey lost time in the race’s final half to finish seventh (+35.5). FasterSkier will post a separate story on the North American results.
Olympic racing continues Saturday with the women’s 4 x 5 k relay, and Sunday with the men’s 4 x 10 k relay.
— Harald Zimmer, Gabby Naranja and Alex Kochon contributed