Nordic Tracks What happened?

  • Published in Sports

By Peter Oliver

 On Sunday, February 18, all was right in the cross-country universe. Four inches of fresh snow overnight had created a silky surface atop a firm base, and skiers luxuriated in a happy place. Two days later, May weather stuck its nose into a place it didn’t belong – the middle of February. The silk reverted to a brown sow’s ear, and in one, gruesome flash, it was game over.

   At this point in snow-starved Vermont, perhaps cross-country skiers should strap on virtual-reality goggles and take imagined tours through the woods of Blueberry Lake or the open meadows of Ole’s. Sitting on the sofa looking like a paratrooper from a sci-fi movie might do little to elevate the heart rate or improve fitness, but it might do something to nurture the soul.

   Rather than ski virtually, however, a better choice recently might have been to ski vicariously, and the Olympics in Korea provided a great, vicarious opportunity. The man-made snow was abundant and butter-smooth, and the technique and fitness of the world’s best cross-country skiers was a wonder to behold.

    To watch, for example, skate skiers charging up steep hills using the V2 poling technique was to watch with envy a harmonic convergence of power, cardiovascular overdrive and technical mastery. They made it all look so ridiculously easy. But maybe it wasn’t. Sprawled on the snow just after the finish line as if leveled by a Mike Tyson punch, they gasped for fresh oxygen with flanks heaving, every last scintilla of energy drained from their bodies.

   By various measurements, cross-country skiers are considered to be the fittest athletes in the world. So when the fittest athletes in the world extend themselves to the point of collapse, some pinnacle of human performance must have been attained.

   But maybe only cross-country geeks really care if a skate skier is using V1 or V2 technique or if they can achieve some exalted VO2 max level. For everyone else, it’s the drama – the Olympic theater – that really wins the day, and perhaps the most dramatic event of the entire Olympic fortnight, in any sport, was the women’s team sprint.

   The event was contested by two-person teams, each skier taking three laps around a 1.2-kilometer course, alternating between one another. The Norwegians, led by the ageless Marit Bjoergen, the most decorated winter Olympic athlete of all time, and the Swedes, led by Stina Nielsen, the individual sprint gold medal a few days earlier, were the obvious favorites. The American team of Kikkan Randall, as ageless as Bjoergen, and the effervescently youthful Jessie Diggins was given at least a fighting chance for a medal. The Finns, Russians and Swiss were also prominent medal contenders.

   Unlike the men, who would compete later, the women went hard right from the start. The men dawdled for the first few laps, watching one another warily, unwilling to take a chance on making the first significant move. Not so the women. Bjoergen attacked on the first hill, trying to create immediate separation from the rest of the pack. The move didn’t work, but the first shot had been fired. Race on.

   On lap three, it was Diggins who charged, and only the Norwegians and the Swedes were able to respond as the three leaders separated themselves from the pack. The pace was ferocious, and in her final lap Randall looked like she might get dropped. But summoning some mystical, industrial-strength force in her final Olympic race, she maintained contact with the other two up the last two hills.

   Diggins, too, appearing to be in danger of being dropped, neared the finish, hanging on in third over the final hill. But she later claimed that staying in third was an intentional tactic, enabling her to keep an eye on her competitors and counter any moves they might make. Before the final turn, Diggins cleverly maneuvered between Norwegian Maiken Caspersen Falla and Nielsen to ski into second place with 100 meters to go. That put her just behind Nielsen, widely regarded as the best sprinter in the world. Her silver medal fate seemed a certainty.

   Or was it? In a frantic flurry of poles and skis and blond hair, Diggins drew even with Nielsen before lunging with one ski over the finish line to nip the Swede by less than a meter. Gold medal, USA, and history made. It was the first Olympic gold medal ever for U.S. cross-country skiers.

   It was about as good as cross-country skiing ever gets without actually cross-country skiing. The forecast for the next week is not promising, and the Olympics are now over. So, for the time being, virtual reality may be a cross-country skier’s only hope.