Crossing that line
American team makes statement with best finish everPosted: Sunday February 17, 2002 7:32 PM
“It’s satisfying to have a good day in front of the home crowd,” said Carl Swenson, who skied the final leg of the relay. The American team of John Bauer, Kris Freeman, Justin Wadsworth and Swenson finished in 1:34:05.5, only six-tenths behind Austria.
That may look like a small gap to close, but the Americans finished 1:20 behind the winning Norwegians. Over 40 kilometers, or nearly 25 miles, Norway beat Italy by three-tenths of a second.
If you judge the U.S. team by first place, it has some distance to travel. If you judge the U.S. team by past performance, it has come a long way. And if you judge it by the week that Wadsworth has had, you don’t know whether to cheer or cry.
When he began skiing the third leg of the relay, the U.S. team ranked fifth. Wadsworth, 33, of Bend, Ore., kept the team there. He skied well. He loved how the crowd -- a crowd on U.S. soil, no less -- cheered during the race. “It felt like we were in Norway,” Wadsworth said. “When I was skiing with the Austrian (Gerhard Urain), the crowd is what helped me make it.”
A week before the Winter Games began, Wadsworth, a three-time Olympian, believed that he was in the best shape he had ever been. The U.S. team trained in Sun Valley, and Wadsworth won a 30-kilometer race there shortly before he came to Utah. The 30K is his specialty. “I was totally on my game,” Wadsworth said. “I thought for sure I’d be in the top 10 in the 30K.”
Last year, on this very Soldier Hollow course, Wadsworth finished eighth in a World Cup race. After he arrived in Utah, however, Wadsworth felt his throat begin to get scratchy. He immediately told his girlfriend, Canadian cross-country skier Beckie Scott, to stay away from him. “When you’re in really, really tip-top shape, you’re right on the edge,” Wadsworth said. “Your immune system is vulnerable. You get here, with people all over the world. I carry hand sanitizer with me. I’m cleaning my hands constantly.”
You plan and you dream and you hope, and then you get sick. Wadsworth contracted a bad head cold. Unfortunately, the 30K race took place on Feb. 9, the first day of the Olympics. Wadsworth tried to make a go of it. He jockeyed for position in the mass start. When the race began, however, Wadsworth knew he didn’t have it. He dropped out before the first lap on the 5K course.
Wadsworth felt better as the week continued. He felt markedly better Friday, when Scott won a bronze medal in the women’s five-kilometer free pursuit.
Then came the race Sunday. Wadsworth said that he still didn’t feel 100 percent. But coach Christer Skog put him in the race. You have a three-time Olympian, you want him in the race, even if he has Kleenex hanging out of his racing suit.
When Wadsworth reached the seven-kilometer mark, he said, “My legs filled with lactic (acid). I crawled way back in the pain cave today to hang in there.”
An hour or so after the race, Wadsworth dropped himself in a chair in the Soldier Hollow interview room and contemplated his fortune. “It’s funny,” he said, “to go from being the lead guy to just wanting to make the team.”
Sports Illustrated senior writer Ivan Maisel is in Utah covering the Olympics for the Sports Illustrated Olympic Daily and CNNSI.com. Check back regularly for more of his behind-the-scenes reports from Salt Lake City.