2018 Winter Paralympics (PyeongChang, South Korea): 5/7.5/10 k cross-country races
Saturday marked the last day of individual racing at the PyeongChang Paralympics, and as they have over the last week, the U.S. and Canadian teams did not disappoint, with the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Team adding a gold and two silvers to its medal count and the Canadian Para-Nordic Team notching two golds and two bronze medals in the middle-distance cross-country races.
Seventeen-year-old Natalie Wilkie of Salmon Arm, British Columbia, won the women’s 7.5-kilometer standing classic race, while her Canadian teammate Emily Young placed third in that race.
Brian McKeever, 38, of Canmore, Alberta, won his third-straight race of the Paralympics, the men’s 10 k visually impaired classic race, sweeping all three races at the Paralympics for the third-straight time (he was undefeated at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, as well as the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver, B.C.)
Canada’s Mark Arendz raced to bronze in the men’s 10 k standing classic race for his fifth medal of the week (including a biathlon gold) and seventh of his Paralympic career.
For the U.S., Oksana Masters won her second gold of the Games in the women’s 5 k sitting (after winning the cross-country sprint as well) and fifth medal total in PyeongChang. In three Paralympics, she has eight medals to her name.
Dan Cnossen continued his medal streak with another silver in the men’s 7.5 k sitting for his sixth medal in as many races this week (three in cross-country, three in biathlon), and Jake Adicoff achieved his first Paralympic medal after placing second behind McKeever in the 10 k visually impaired classic.
In the women’s standing race on Saturday, Canada nearly went first and second, with Young missing out on silver by 0.1 seconds. While Wilkie took the win in 22:12.2 minutes, Ekaterina Rumyantseva of the Neutral Paralympics Athletes (NPA) finished 1.6 seconds back for second, just ahead of Young in third (+1.7).
“This is crazy awesome,” Wilkie said after winning the last individual race of her first Paralympics, according to a Cross Country Canada press release. “I didn’t think this would happen at all…
“The difference today was double poling,” she added. “I just kept telling myself to pretend I was elbowing my older brother.”
During the race, Young channeled her teammate for motivation.
“ ‘What would Natalie do?’ I just kept saying ‘What would Natalie be doing?’ ” Young, 27, said with a laugh to Cross Country Canada. “I was trying and trying all week to get onto the podium. I knew this race would be my big chance. I kept telling myself to get this done. There is nothing left in the tank. I didn’t want any more hills. I just wanted to get over the finish line. I left it all out there today.”
Also in the women’s standing race, Canada’s Brittany Hudak placed eighth (+1:37.4) and American Grace Miller finished 18th (+7:09.7).
McKeever spent about half the race with each of his guides, Graham Nishikawa and Russell Kennedy, to win the men’s visually impaired race by more than a minute in 23:17.8. Adicoff, of the U.S., with his guide Sawyer Kesselheim had the second-fastest time for silver (+1:13.5), while Belarus’s Yury Holub (with guide Dzmitry Budzilovich) placed third (+1:19.3).
“This feels good,” said McKeever, who has won 13 gold medals in five Paralympics. “That one was hard today and was a lot closer than the others.
Nishikawa led him for the first 6 k, helping him claw back 4 seconds on Sweden’s Zebastien Modin (and guide Johannes Andersson) ahead of him. At the race’s halfway point, the Canadians took the lead, and after Kennedy jumped in to guide McKeever, they widened their gap over the final 4 k. Modin did not finish.
“Sebastian had a pretty hard crash and I’m most concerned about him because he is a very good friend and you don’t want to win that way,” McKeever said. “It was a good fight today. We knew when to hit it and when to pull back. It’s nice to complete what we set out to do.
“Today was all about teamwork,” McKeever added. “There was a huge temperature change so we were out very early as a team testing new skis with our wax techs for 90 minutes before the race even started. It was a huge effort by everyone today.”
For Adicoff, 22, the silver marked the first Paralympic medal of his career. He had previously been awarded bronze in the cross-country classic sprint, but was relegated to fourth for a technique violation.
As for Saturday’s middle-distance race, he said the skiing was “absolutely awesome. We had great skis by our staff,” Adicoff said, according to a U.S. Paralympics Nordic press release. “I got a little bit sick a couple days ago, so going into this race I told myself to stay relaxed the first part and see if we could keep adding throughout the whole race. It ended up working out, I’m really happy about that.”
“He was really smart today, thinking about how he’s going to pace the race,” Kesselheim told U.S. Paralympics. “Taking it out not too hard and then building throughout. Really using the skis to our advantage and skiing smooth.”
In the women’s 7.5 k visually impaired classic race, American Mia Zutter (with guide Kristina Trygstad-Saari) finished ninth, 5:33.7 behind the winner, Belarus’s Sviatlana Sakhanenka (with guide Raman Yashchanka).
Then there was Masters, 28, who learned Friday that she was elected as the flag bearer for the entire U.S. Paralympic team at Sunday’s Closing Ceremony. She picked up her second gold medal of the week with a win in the 5 k sitting in 16:42, 11.5 seconds ahead of Germany’s Andrea Eskau in second.
“I am absolutely truly speechless on this performance,” Masters told U.S. Paralympics on Saturday. “I was a little bit nervous because I didn’t get my full warm up in and I was yawning at the start line thinking I was a little too relaxed. I have no idea what just happened.
“I thrive and love the athlete lifestyle of eat, sleep and train,” she continued. “To put yourself to the ultimate test on that start line and seeing all your hard work come through, and not just that, it’s a whole team effort. Seeing how our amazing team between our wax tech, nutritionist, sport psych, everything just comes together at the finish line. That’s really what it’s all about. It’s that moment coming together. It’s not a one-person show. It definitely takes a village and we have an incredible team.”
In that race, American Kendall Gretsch, who won two golds earlier in the week, placed sixth (+1:04.4), Canada’s Cindy Ouellet (+4:04.6) finished 17th and American Joy Rondeu was 19th (+5:13.1)
In the men’s 10 k sitting, Cnossen pulled off his fourth silver medal of the week (and sixth medal total), finishing 5.3 seconds shy of gold, which went to South Korea’s Sin Eui-hyun in 22:28.4.
“This is my favorite race that we do,” Cnossen, 37, told U.S. Paralympics. “It’s 20-21 minutes of effort, or thereabouts, just all out as hard as you can go. I left it all out on the course and was edged out by five seconds. I’m really happy for Mr. Sin, my South Korean competitor. He earned the gold medal.”
After what he estimated to be around 60 k of racing over the last eight days, not including training, warming up or cooling down, Cnossen said he was feeling “very fatigued.”
“I came into the Games just trying to take it one race at a time and give it my all — each and every race — and not think too far ahead,” the retired Navy SEAL said. “Just focus on the here and now, and soak up the moment and be in the present.”
Also in that race, Andy Soule of the U.S. finished fifth (+34.0) and Canada’s Chris Klebl placed sixth (+1:00.9). Also for Canada, Derek Zaplotinsky followed in 15th (+3:15.2), Sebastien Fortier placed 16th (+3:19.9) and Yves Bourque 31st (+8:47.9). For the U.S., Sean Halsted finished 23rd (+4:19.8), Bryan Price 26th (+5:35.9) and Jeremy Wagner 30th (+8:06.9).
In the men’s standing division, Arendz claimed his fifth medal in as many starts this week, placing first, second and third in the three biathlon races and earning another bronze in the cross-country sprint. (He skipped the long-distance cross-country race.)
On Saturday, in the middle-distance cross-country event, Arendz finished 20.3 seconds behind the winner, Japan’s Yoshihiro Nitta, who won in 24:06.8, and 11.6 seconds behind Ukraine’s Grygorii Vovchynskyi, who placed second (+8.7).
“The focus was to come here and race in six out of the seven events,” Arendz explained. “I have one more left to accomplish in the relay, but I got done what I set out to do in biathlon and to get a couple in cross-country is extra special. This course here really suits me well and the skis have been great all week.”
Arendz was chosen as Canada’s flag bearer for Sunday’s Closing Ceremony.
With two relay races (mixed and open) remaining on Sunday, Canada has a grand total of 14 nordic and biathlon medals at these Paralympics, surpassing its previous Paralympic medal total. The U.S. team is up to 16, also record-breaking for its nordic/biathlon program.