Sweden wins men's cross-country relay; U.S. 11th
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – The United States men’s cross-country ski team’s relay performance indicated progress, though not quite at the pace the Americans had hoped on Sunday at the Winter Olympics.
Their 11th-place finish in the 4x10K at the Laura Cross Country Ski and Biathlon Center included small victories, included being two places better than the U.S. standing in the same race at Vancouver in 2010.
“It’s always nice to get ahead of Canada,” offered third-leg Noah Hoffman, referring to the U.S. rivals to the north, who finished 12th in the 16-team event.
But taking into account its 10th-place finish at the 2013 world championships, the U.S. fell short of its grand ambition of a top-eight placement, which is keeping with the not-quite-there theme of these Games.
Much of that had to do with the difficulties encountered by lead-off skier Andrew Newell, the 30-year-old three-time Olympian from Shaftsbury, Vt. With temperatures in the low 50s and under a bright sun, Newell struggled to 15th place among the 16 skiers.
He initially found post-race comfort in a snowbank before being taken to the nearby athletes’ village, where medical services were available to speed his recovery. He was not available for comment afterward.
U.S. coach Chris Grover cited “overheating and dehydration” as having affected Newell, and said the dark-colored, heat-absorbing U.S. suits didn’t help over the hilly route.
“Some of these other guys had great races,” added Groves, who wasn’t sure if Newell would be able to race in Wednesday’s team sprint. The U.S. time of 1:33:15.1 was 4:33.1 behind victorious Sweden. Russia took silver and France bronze.
The relay began with two skiing in the classic style (Newell and Erik Bjornsen) before the final two legs (Hoffman and Simeon Hamilton) were freestyle (skating). Splits were 24:34.3 (Newell), 23:56.8 (Bjornsen), 21:37.4 (Hoffman) and 23:06.6 (Hamilton).
“Last year on that course, Andy came in about four seconds out of the lead,” said Grover of Newell, who was 1:17.8 back Sunday, “so if you don’t bleed all that time out of the first leg, we could have been in contact with guys skiing a little bit faster, a little bit longer. So you never know. Maybe we would have had a better day.”
Bjornsen, the 22-year-old from Winthrop, Wash., who is the team’s youngest member, was able to make up two places, putting the U.S. in 13th.
“I saw the places in front of me and I figured if everything went great I could catch a few,” Bjornsen said. “I was able to catch two, which I was happy about, and maybe put in some time on that next group of people.”
Hoffman, 24, then brought them all the way to 10th before Hamilton, primarily a sprinter, was passed only by Estonia.
“In Colorado, we get weather like this in the spring every year and I love racing in summer time. It’s awesome,” said Hoffman, the first-time Olympian from Aspen.
“It’s relay. So you never know what’s going to happen . . . You’ve got to be ready to roll with anything and take what’s given to you. I’m happy with the way I skied and I’m really impressed with the way Erik skied especially and Simi for holding on a little longer than Sim’s used to racing.”
Skiers said the snow conditions were excellent, despite the warm weather, as the snow had been salted to prevent slushing.
The 26-year-old Hamilton, who, like Newell, had been on the 2010 Olympic 4x10K, said the U.S. has a long way to go to become competitive with cross country skiing’s traditional European powers, though the gap has closed some.
“I don’t think we’re going to wake up tomorrow and know that we’re a podium relay team,” said Hamilton, also from Aspen. “We can hope for that, but we all live in pretty realistic worlds and we know it takes a ton of hard work to get up there. I think we’re pretty content with just putting in the training and the work right now and keeping the focus and making those small steps.
“Four years ago, we were kind of scraping together anyone that could ski that relay day. Today it’s kind of a different story with a few really strong distance skiers and me, who some days I can ski distance well . . . We keep kind of doing this, maybe in four years or eight years we’ll have the strongest team that we’ve ever had and we can be right up there with the big guys.”
Tresolini writes for The News Journal of Wilmington, Del.
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