Coming into this year’s world championships, four men from the same country had never claimed all of the top four spots at an Olympic or World Championships race, at least within the formidable modern-era results corpus maintained by the peerless Joran Elias (aka Statistical Skier).
Now it’s happened twice in a week. The Norwegian men did it on Friday in the skiathlon. Earlier today, in the 15-kilometer interval-start skate race, they did it again. A baseline of Norwegian men’s distance skiing dominance, coupled with the ongoing absence of Russian athletes due to their country’s invasion of Ukraine, has led to an unprecedented glut of red uniforms, with cubist embellishments, atop the results sheet. Norway has always performed well in international skiing, clearly, but at 2023 Cross Country World Ski Championships, most races have been theirs to lose.
The winner today was Simen Hegstad Krüger, who covered the 15km course in 32:17.4, picking up his second gold of the week following his breakaway win in last week’s skiathlon. Silver went to Harald Østberg Amundsen, 5.3 seconds back. In bronze was Hans Christer Holund, 24.6 seconds back. Fourth went to Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, 25.5 seconds back (i.e., less than a second back from Holund), a man who possesses ten world champs medals of various metallic hues, and now a wooden medal as well.
William Poromaa of Sweden was fifth (+48.9) to break up the Norwegian cavalcade, as Sjur Røthe finished narrowly behind him (+52.8) to give the Norwegian men five of the six top spots in the race.
Norway got to start five athletes in this race, instead of four, because the defending world champion receives a guaranteed entry to that event in the next world champs two years later, and does not count against their nation’s start quota. The world champion in this event in Oberstdorf in 2021 was… Hans Christer Holund. Silver that year went to… Simen Hegstad Krüger. And bronze that year went to… Harald Østberg Amundsen.
Russia or no (Alexander Bolshunov and Artem Maltsev, of the “Russian Ski Federation,” were fourth and fifth in Oberstdorf two years ago, ahead of, well, two more Norwegians in sixth and seventh), the Norwegian men are good at distance skiing, and those strengths tend to shine in the interval-start format race of truth. Stay tuned to hear from Statistical Skier how often the same three athletes make up the podium in the same race in successive world championships, in any order, but it has to be a relatively rare occurrence.
The greatest drama today — and there was certainly drama — came from which Norwegian would claim which step on the podium. Krüger, Holund, and Klæbo started near the front end of the field of seeded athletes, in bibs no. 44, 46, and 48, respectively. Amundsen started in bib no. 64, a full ten minutes after Krüger. Dark horse Andrew Musgrave of Britain, a man with a World Cup podium in this event over a comparable course, had bib no. 68. The fight for the podium would not be over until all these athletes, along with the rest of the seeded field, had come through.
Krüger, in bib no. 44, was relatively untouchable at the front. By the halfway point of the race, he was roughly 23 seconds ahead of all of Holund, Klæbo, and Poromaa. At 10.8km into the race, the margin was up to 27 seconds ahead of, at the time, his closest pursuer. And when first Holund and then Klæbo came into the finish well behind him, the world’s greatest sprinter having been unable to find an extra 0.9 seconds over the close of the course to overtake Holund, a medal for Krüger seemed assured.
But as for what color it would be, well, Amundsen was still on course, and he had the advantage of starting after all of the other main podium contenders.
Indeed, Amundsen ranked first 2.2km into the race, though also within 1.5 seconds of the rest of the podium. At the halfway mark, he was 11 seconds back of Krüger in the silver medal position, but there was a lot of racing yet to come. Indeed, by the 10.8km mark, Amundsen had drawn to within 7.7 seconds. By the 12.7km mark, the gap was up to 13.6 seconds, but it would still come down to the final few kilometers.
Amundsen skied the close of the course exceedingly well, narrowing the gap to 5.3 seconds by the finish. But that was as close as he got. Krüger and Amundsen both moved up one spot from their finishing positions in this race in 2021 to take gold and silver, respectively, with Holund moving down from gold to bronze. Klæbo, as noted, pushed hard to catch Holund, a man who started two bibs and one minute ahead of him, but ultimately came up 0.9 seconds short in his bid to claim his second career world championships distance medal.
“It was some nerve-wracking seconds waiting for Harald there, and he was so strong as well today,” Krüger told FIS after the race. Krüger added, “We are going to celebrate the triple for sure. It was the same triple as two years ago so we like this distance here. It will be a small celebration tonight.”
Also celebrating was Gus Schumacher, 19th (+1:42.9), who had a far more encouraging experience today after a rough outing in the skiathlon last week. Following that race, Schumacher wrote to Nordic Insights, “I’ve felt really good even within the past week so I don’t see any reason why it can’t turn around. Today was really bad but I don’t think that means it can’t change.”
Reader, things can change. Schumacher skied a steady race today, ranking 18th or 19th at most intermediate checkpoints en route to finishing 19th overall. He was the third U23 athlete in the field, behind Poromaa in fifth and Friedrich Moch of Germany in eighth; with the notable exception of Amundsen, currently 24 years old, high-level distance skiing is not a young man’s game. Indeed, of the Americans’ four presumptive starters for Sunday’s 50km here, Scott Patterson is 31 and David Norris is 32. Of today’s podium, Krüger is 29 and Holund is 34.
Back to Schumacher: I asked him how the course had skied, and what he focused on today. He wrote, “There was a small amount of new snow on the course, but it was still pretty fast and the track was packed but not icy. Pretty money skiing! Nice to not worry about the downhills at all and be able to carry speed better today. My main focus was to just ski well, with big movements and long glide, which these conditions permitted better than the skiathlon day. I also felt better, which allowed me to ski big (it takes energy).”
I also asked the obvious question of what he did differently between the skiathlon and today… but the answer, even for a thoughtful, gracious, and introspective athlete, is maybe just that sometimes you have good days and sometimes you have bad days, and that it’s important to stay positive even after the latter.
Or as Schumacher put it, “Honestly, I couldn’t tell you how that turnaround happened, I didn’t do anything differently in terms of my preparation. Mentally, I stayed positive and trusted that my body was feeling good once I’d recovered from the thrashing of the skiathlon. I also tried to remember that it’s not every day you get to race at world champs, and this is a day I think about a lot during the summer, so I tried to enjoy it. It’s honestly a little nice for the future to have another instance where I felt pretty bad one day and then quite good a few days later.”
Bottom line, Schumacher noted, “Overall, I’m really psyched with better feelings today, and I’m really happy with how my game plan and skis ended up. The techs did a great job. And now I have even more confidence for our relay!”
Schumacher’s fellow Alaskan, Scott Patterson, was ten seconds and four places ahead of him on the results sheet, ultimately finishing in 15th (+1:33). Patterson started strong, and was in tenth place as late as the final time checkpoint, 12.7km into the race. In his own words, however (caption embedded above), the close of the race saw him “falling apart the last 2km.” He added, in mixed zone audio provided by USSS, that he “bled a lot of places and time” in that stretch of the race.
“I feel like it was a race to ski strong and smooth,” Patterson said at the finish. “That’s kind of what I was trying to do. I mean, it’s a long hill from the bottom to the top, but there’s a couple of spots you can ease off a little bit and take a couple breaths; I tried to really maximize those. But still, by the last lap up top, it adds up. Then those last couple transitions around I was barely over the top, like, Okay, I’m tucking; barely over the top to the next, Yeah, tucking.”
Patterson said that, more broadly, he did not feel at his best today in warmup, but that he worked into the race and thought that he skied “pretty decent for how I was feeling.”
A Scott Patterson hungry for more going into a championship 50km is a dangerous thing. Patterson was 11th at this distance in the 2018 Olympics, 10th at this distance in 2021 World Championships, and 8th at this distance [sic] in the 2022 Olympics. Stay tuned for Sunday, and for Holmenkollen the week after that. “It’d be nice to beat some of these Norwegian guys,” Patterson observed in reference to his next two 50km contests.
Ben Ogden, of Vermont, finished 27th (+2:07.7), with results describing a gentle downward parabola: 16th, 20th, 24th, 25th.
“It was one of those courses where you can feel like a king for the first 4km,” Ogden memorably observed in the mixed zone. “And then you’re like, Oh god, I still have 10km to go.”
Ogden continued, “But I kept pushing the whole way, so I felt reasonably happy.”
The reporter in the audio provided from USSS (let’s call him “Nat Herz”) asked about the effect of Jessie Diggins’s epochal win yesterday on the American team.
“I was thinking about this in warmup,” Ogden mused. “People are always saying that we have, like, a team culture and stuff. And I think it’s really true. … Like today, I got more congratulations before the race even started than I have for any race this whole season. And it’s not like *I* was out there fighting yesterday, but it was like, when Jesse wins, we all win, and we all certainly feel that, and everybody here feels that too. So everyone was coming up to me saying congratulations, and how proud they are that an American was able to do it. And obviously she was the one who did all the work and she was the one who is the best in the world, but when she wins, we all win, and that was motivating for sure.”
Behind Ogden, Hunter Wonders, also of Alaska, finished 33rd (+2:41.4), after similarly dropping slightly (20th, 27th, 28th, 33rd) over the course of the race’s intermediate time checkpoints. Post-race comments from Wonders were not immediately available.
And finally, back briefly to the ridiculousness that is Simen Hegstad Krüger’s track record at global championships. Here’s a screenshot from the relevant portion of Krüger’s Wikipedia page, since it neatly lays out these data in visual form:
Count the total number of starts here, then count the total number of medals. Krüger has started four Olympics races and six World Championships races, or ten starts total. From those ten starts, he has come away with nine medals. This is obscene. (Krüger was a whopping 3.3 seconds, over 50 kilometers, from elevating that lowly fifth in Seefeld in 2019 up to a bronze, which would leave him a perfect 10 for 10.)
Also note that just one of those medals came in the relay, where Norway is a near-lock for a medal. Krüger is a stunning eight for nine in individual distance races at global championships over the past five years. That’s what you get when no less an authority than Hans Christer Holund calls you “the best skater in the world” right now.
Speaking of world champion skaters, racing continues in Planica tomorrow with the women’s 4 x 5km relay. Jessie Diggins, who you, along with Ben Ogden, may have noticed now bears that title, will ski leg three for the Americans, with Julia Kern anchoring. Hailey Swirbul and Rosie Brennan will ski the classic legs, with Swirbul reprising her role on the scramble leg.
The relay team returns three out of four athletes from the American women’s heartbreakingly close fourth place finish in Oberstdorf, with Kern taking the place of the now retired Sadie Bjornsen Maubet. That relay (in 2021), if you really want to get into the weeds, featured Swirbul–Bjornsen Maubet–Brennan–Diggins, in that order. Kern previously skied the scramble leg for the American relay team at Seefeld in 2019, along with Bjornsen Maubet, Brennan, and Diggins.
— Gavin Kentch