Olympic sports writing: 2004-2015

Selected features and interviews, plus coverage from several Olympics:


Sochi 2014

London 2012 (all Bleacher Report unless noted)

Vancouver 2010: Nordic sports and biathlon (all USA TODAY)

Beijing 2008: Everything, especially soccer (all USA TODAY)

Torino 2006 (USA TODAY)

Athlete interviews (all USA TODAY)

Sochi recap: Cross-country skiing, women’s 30k

We saw two races today — a three-way race between three Norwegians, then a race among everyone else. Norway had some frustration in these Olympics, but not today. Marit Bjoergen won her third gold medal of these Games. She’s tied for the women’s Winter Olympic career records with six golds and 10 medals.

Date: 22-Feb

Sport: Cross-country skiing

Event: Women’s 30k freestyle mass start

Medalists: Marit Bjoergen (Norway), Theresa Johaug (Norway), Kristin Stoermer Steira (Norway)

SportsMyriad projections: Justyna Kowalczyk (Poland), Therese Johaug (Norway), Marit Bjoergen (Norway)

How U.S. fared: Not the USA’s best event, but a couple of skiers were seeded in the top 15. They were never a factor, though. Skiers have the option of changing skis at the 10k and 20k mark, and the U.S. skiers all changed at 10k. Then they saw few other skiers making the same decision. That cost them about 20 seconds, and no one was in the chase pack of about 12 skiers.

Liz Stephen finished 24th (3:06.6 back), Holly Brooks 27th (3:53.1), Kikkan Randall 28th (4:05.5), Jessie Diggins 40th (7:07.8).

What happened: Remember when Norway had all the wrong wax or all the wrong skis? Not today. At the 10k mark, Norway had the top three and the skier in fifth. Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla broke up the party, with Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk and Finland’s Krista Lahteenmaki immediately behind.

Then Theresa Johaug, Marit Bjoergen and Kristin Stoermer Steira simply broke away. At the halfway point, they were more than 30 seconds ahead of Lahteenmaki. Kowalczyk, unable to keep up, simply popped off her skis and withdrew from the race. (She prefers classical.)

By the 20k mark, the lead was close to a minute over a dispirited chase pack, where the other contenders had little interest in turning up the pace to chase for fourth place.

Bjoergen and Johaug pushed up the final climb and dropped Steira. Bjoergen gained some daylight at the top and raced away for the win. Johaug was 2.6 seconds back, then Steira 23 seconds behind.

The Norwegians had a minute — literally — to celebrate at the finish line before Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen won the sprint for fourth place.

Full results

Sochi recap: Cross-country skiing, women’s team sprint

Norway slayed some demons in the Olympic venue, destroying the field to win the team sprint.

Date: 19-Feb

Sport: Cross-country skiing

Event: Women’s team sprint (classical)

Medalists: Norway, Finland, Sweden

SportsMyriad projections: Sweden, Finland, Norway

How U.S. fared: Sophie Caldwell and Kikkan Randall — one surprise and one shock of the individual freestyle sprint — hung tough with Norway and Sweden in their semifinal to qualify for the 10-team final. Caldwell stuck within 1.53 seconds of the lead in her first lap and came across in fourth, but Randall — better in freestyle — couldn’t keep up with the classic stars in the second lap. They faded to eighth place, 44.03 seconds off the pace.

What happened: Each team has two skiers who alternate laps. Six laps total, three laps for each skier. Each lap takes a little more than two and a half minutes.

Norwegian star Marit Bjoergen, who has had a hit-or-miss Olympics, put the hammer down on the second lap (her first). She built a lead of nearly three seconds. Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg kept that lead comfortably, and Bjoergen built it out to nearly five seconds in the fourth lap.

Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen and Kerttu Niskanen stuck around in second — through four laps, about five seconds behind Norway and five ahead of the chasers battling for bronze. Germany, Sweden and Poland were in the mix there.

After five laps, Oestberg had kept the lead over four seconds. Finland had pulled away a bit from Germany, which had pulled away from Sweden, which had pulled away from Poland. But Poland’s anchor was the great Justyna Kowalczyk, who took the handoff 10 seconds and change out of third place.

Bjoergen cruised to her second gold of the Games. Finland was easily second. The big push was for bronze, with Sweden’s Stina Nilsson pulling past Germany’s Denise Herrman down the stretch.

Full results

Sochi recap: Cross-country skiing, men’s relay

The now-familiar story: Great success for Sweden, horrible disappointment for Norway’s superstars. Russia got a crowd-pleasing silver, and France got a bronze no one expected.

Date: 16-Feb

Sport: Cross-country skiing

Event: Men’s 4x10k relay (two classical legs, two freestyle)

Medalists: Sweden, Russia, France

SportsMyriad projections: Norway, Sweden, Russia

How U.S. fared: Andy Newell was having a solid first leg, but something happened off-camera that dropped him all the way to 15th. He finished in some distress, tapping to Erik Bjornsen down 1:17.8. Bjornsen passed Poland and Belarus to move up to 13th, 2:15.0 off the lead.

In freestyle, Noah Hoffman hauled the USA into the top 10, passing Kazakhstan, Estonia and Canada. But they were a minute behind ninth-place Switzerland. Estonia came back to take 10th, and Simi Hamilton crossed the line 11th, 4:33.1 behind.

What happened: A couple of mishaps made the first leg interesting. Sweden’s Lars Nelson’s binding appeared to pop off his ski. Rather than continue on one ski a la John Cusack in Better Off Dead, he calmly got a replacement and got right back in the pack.

The second incident wreaked a little more havoc, with Germany’s Jens Filbrich getting tangled with Estonia’s Karel Tammjarv. Filbrich fell on a downhill section and had to see the pack race away as he scrambled to his feet.

Nelson and Finland’s Sami Jauhojaervi ripped away from the pack and bumped each other a bit in the last turn of the leg. Nelson gave Sweden an 0.3-second lead. France was within 10 seconds. Norway and Russia were not, nearly 30 seconds back.

The second leg saw a couple of packs settle into place. The leaders: Sweden, Finland, France. The chase pack: Russia, Czech Republic, Norway, Italy, Switzerland. Then Germany was struggling to catch that pack.

But 36-year-old Czech skier Lukas Bauer changed all that. The three-time Olympian broke away from the chase back and overhauled France for third at the halfway point of the race. Russia had no such response, and Norway slid backward — more than a minute down.

The freestyle skiers shook things up. At the front, Sweden’s Johann Olsson took off. Finland faded, with France and the Czech Republic overtaking through two of the 3.3k laps and several more passing on the next. Russia’s Alexander Legkov pounced as the packs split apart, scooting up to second. Martin Johnsrud Sundby put Norway back in striking range but fell back. At the third exchange: Sweden in first, Russia 14.3 seconds back, France 18.6, Italy 41.7, Czech Republic 42.1, Norway 59.2, Finland 1:09.3.

Sweden had Marcus Hellner, already a silver medalist here, in the anchor leg. Russia had Maxim Vylegzhanin, fourth in the Olympic skiathlon and a four-time World Championship medalist. France had the literally unknown — NBC’s encyclopedic Chad Salmela confessed he knew nothing about him — Ivan Perrillat Boiteux. Norway had 2010 Olympic star and nine-time world champion Petter Northug, but he had been struggling so far in these Games and had a look of disbelief as Sundby tapped him for the exchange.

To Salmela’s shock, Boiteux passed Vylegzhanin at the end of the second lap, right in front of Vylegzhanin’s home crowd. Northug creeped up into fifth but still had work to do.

Hellner took care of business easily, and a coach handed him a small Swedish flag for the run into the stadium. Vylegzhanin finally flew away from his unknown French racing companion as they headed into the stadium to give Russia second place, and Boiteux collapsed across the line in third as his French teammates mobbed him. Then came the disconsolate figure of Petter Northug, continuing Norway’s dreadful performance on cross-country skis.


Full results

Sochi recap: Cross-country skiing, women’s relay

Sweden won a thrilling three-team finish, while the perplexing Olympics continued for Norway and the USA.

Date: 15-Feb

Sport: Cross-country skiing

Event: Women’s 4x5k relay (two classic legs, two freestyle legs)

Medalists: Sweden, Finland, Germany

SportsMyriad projections: Norway, Sweden, Finland

How U.S. fared: Kikkan Randall is a better freestyle skier than a classic skier, but she had the first classic leg today. She was in the mix through one lap but faded terribly in the second, handing off 39.7 seconds behind in 12th place. Sadie Bjornsen moved up to ninth but lost time, 1:04.9 back. Liz Stephen lost another 30 seconds to the leaders in the first freestyle leg, remaining in ninth.

Then it got strange. Jessie Diggins, the youngest skier on the team at 22, pulled alongside Italy for eighth. But she took a wrong turn as she pulled into the stadium. Italy got away, and the USA took ninth.

What happened: Russia’s Julia Ivanova got the home crowd rocking by taking the lead through the first leg, but they quickly dropped in the second. The Czech Republic, in second place after the first, also dropped far behind.

Sweden was a close third after the first leg (Ida Ingemarsdotter) and first after the second (Emma Wiken), but Anna Haag lost pace with the leaders in the third leg.

Norway had a virtual all-star team but was losing time. Heidi Weng was 6.5 seconds back after the first leg. Therese Johaug slid to 13.4 back. Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen shed more time and handed off with a 33.4-second gap.

Instead, it was those surprising Finns. Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, fourth and fifth in her two Olympic races, pulled through a strong two laps. Keettu Niskanen then pulled away from Germany at the end of the third leg.

But Germany, which just stayed in touch through three legs, handed off to Denise Herrman. She immediately got on the tail of Krista Lahteenmaki. No pressure or anything.

Sweden and Norway had the big guns on the anchor leg — Charlotte Kalla and Marit Bjoergen, each of whom already had a medal. After one lap, Kalla was within 15 seconds of the lead. Bjoergen was within 30.

Kalla kept closing — 10 seconds, then five. Bjoergen, who had visions of another large medal haul after winning the skiathlon early in the Games, did not.

Lahteenmaki opened a little gap on the downhill leading into the stadium, but then all three skiers came together. On the last turn, Kalla made the crucial move. She pulled ahead of Lahteenmaki for the win.

So after 20k of racing, all three medalists finished within one second — Sweden, Finland, Germany.

France passed a dispirited Norway for fourth. Russia cruised to sixth. Poland was all alone in seventh. Then came Italy, helped along to eighth by the USA’s wrong turn. The USA was nearly a minute ahead of the Czech Republic.

Full results

Sochi recap: Cross-country skiing, men’s 15k

It’s Dario Cologna’s week. The Swiss skier picked up his second gold medal on another warm, slushy day in which the best-finishing Norwegian, Chris Andre Jespersen, wore tight shorts.

Date: 14-Feb

Sport: Cross-country skiing

Event: Men’s 15k classical

Medalists: Dario Cologna (Switzerland), Johan Olsson (Sweden), Daniel Richardsson (Sweden)

SportsMyriad projections: Alexey Poltoranin (Kazakhstan), Maxim Vylegzhanin (Russia), Petter Northug (Norway)

How U.S. fared: Not a good event for the Americans. Noah Hoffman led the way in 31st, 2:33 back. Then Erik Bjornsen (38th, 3:15), Brian Gregg (47th, 4:12) and Kris Freeman (52nd, 4:25).

What happened: We all had Finland’s Iivo Niskanen in our projections, right? You know he’s important when his FIS results page doesn’t have his picture. And how about that … one World Cup top-10?

He did win the U23 World Championships in this event last month. So when he started 13th and immediately set jaw-dropping split times, he got some attention. Then when most of the favorites couldn’t match those split times, the cameras made sure to follow him around the course, all the way to his theatrical fall after finishing.

But sometimes, a good skier has an even better week. So it was no surprise when Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, the skiathlon winner earlier this week, started beating Niskanen’s split times. So did Sweden’s Johan Olsson, the World Championship runner-up.

The other contenders weren’t in the picture. Petter Northug, clearly not at his best this week, didn’t even start. Alexey Poltoranin, the pick of NBC’s Chad Salmela as well as SportsMyriad, came across the splits in the top 10 but no higher. Martin Johnsrud Sundby was fifth at the first checkpoint but faded.

Russia, desperate for a medal after some close calls, threw some surprising names into the mix. Maxim Vylegzhanin, a very close fourth in the skiathlon, wasn’t racing. Alexander Bessmertnykh, with one World Cup podium in the past four years, finished in a very tentative second place but was knocked off the podium within seconds.

Cologna started one place behind Olsson, and they came into the finish together. And they took the top two places — Cologna at 38:29.7, Olsson 28.5 seconds back. Niskanen was 39.0 seconds behind them.

The last serious threat to the podium was Sweden’s Daniel Richardsson, who was 11th at the 8k mark but saved his best for last. He could see the time he needed as he struggled to find some energy down the stretch. He pushed his poles as hard as he could, lunged and … beat Niskanen by 0.2 seconds.

Full results

Sochi recap: Cross-country, women’s 10k classical

You don’t usually see an Olympic cross-country race in short sleeves and tank tops, but that’s what we had here. And in the end, it was a Polish great with a broken foot — Justyna Kowalczyk — surviving the heat to take gold, while 15k skiathlon winner Marit Bjoergen faded and was unable to add to her collection of eight Olympic medals.

Date: 13-Feb

Sport: Cross-country

Event: Women’s 10k classical

Medalists: Justyna Kowalczyk (Poland), Charlotte Kalla (Sweden), Therese Johaug (Norway)

SportsMyriad projections: Marit Bjoergen (Norway), Justyna Kowalczyk (Poland), Heidi Weng (Norway)

How U.S. fared: Sprint finalist Sophie Caldwell didn’t seem to be wearing anything under her race bib. She dressed appropriately and went out fast — through the first 13 skiers, she was second-fastest. Holly Brooks’ time was 7.7 seconds behind her. Ida Sargent had the last start among the Americans and slid into place just ahead of Brooks. Final places: Caldwell 32nd, Sargent 34th, Brooks 35th.

The best race was Sadie Bjornsen’s. The 24-year-old beat several consistent contenders and finished 18th, 1:41.9 behind the winner.

What happened: The favorites all started in the middle of the pack on the warm day for this race against the clock, with each skier taking off at a 30-second interval. If the snow got slushy as the day wore on, the lower-seeded skiers would need to deal with it.

The top contenders were all within a group of five — Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk started 43rd, Norway’s Marit Bjoergen 45th and Norway’s Therese Johaug 46th. And it was indeed Kowalczyk setting the pace at the 2.2k mark at 5:20. Bjoergen came across just 1.9 seconds back, then Johaug 3.2 back. Two more Norwegians were unsurprisingly in the mix — Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen (starting 44th) and Heidi Weng (42nd). No one else was close.

But by the 5k mark, Weng had fallen back. And Kowalczyk extended her lead over the Norwegians — 9.1 seconds over Bjoergen. Sweden’s Charlotte Falla, starting 40th, slipped ahead of Johaug. Jacobsen, whose brother passed away just as the Games began, had some sort of untelevised mishap and fell 50 seconds back.

Bjoergen came through a 6k checkpoint just ahead of Kowalczyk, but that quickly changed. The Polish skier was digging deep at the 8k mark, and it paid off. When Bjoergen labored up the hill, the Norwegian favorite came across the time check 19.9 seconds back, just ahead of Falla and Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen. Johaug was the only other skier within striking distance — 4.7 seconds separated third from fifth.

Saarinen was the first of the contenders to finish, taking the lead at 28.48.1. Then came Kalla, furiously double-poling down the stretch and drafting behind Russia’s Yulia Tchekaleva. Kalla took the lead, 11.9 seconds ahead of Saarinen.

Bjoergen looked “defeated,” in the words on NBC’s excitable Chad Salmela. As he said that, one of Bjoergen’s skis slipped a little on the uphill.

Then came Kowalczyk, pushing for every last second. She beat Kalla’s time by 18.4 seconds and collapsed into the snow. The leaders: Kowalczyk, Kalla, Saarinen — with two contending Norwegians coming in.

Bjoergen, one of the top skiers ever in this sport, came in pushing just for bronze. She fell 3.1 seconds short.

Johaug was the last skier who could affect the podium, sprinting to bump off Saarinen. It went down to the wire, but Johaug got it by two seconds.

With that, Kowalczyk broke down in tears, overwhelmed by her accomplishment. And why not?

Full results

Sochi recap: Cross-country skiing, men’s sprint

Think short-track has crazy crashes? Take a look at the final of an eventful men’s sprint, in which several favorites fell short in elimination rounds, a couple more were wiped out in a NASCAR-style crash, and another literally fell across the finish line to take bronze.

Date: 11-Feb

Sport: Cross-country skiing

Event: Men’s sprint

Medalists: Ola Vigen Hattestad (Norway), Teodor Peterson (Sweden), Emil Joensson (Sweden)

SportsMyriad projections: Emil Joensson (Sweden), Petter Northug (Norway), Nikita Kriukov (Russia)

How U.S. fared: Andy Newell qualified 17th, Simi Hamilton 21st. Not advancing to the elimination rounds: Torin Koos (t-37th) and Erik Bjornsen (39th).

Hamilton was in the first heat and immediately broke a pole, as if extending the U.S. misery from Kikkan Randall’s shocking elimination a couple of minutes earlier. He got back in the mix but couldn’t fight through traffic at the line, finishing sixth in the heat.

Newell did well to get in contention in his heat, but he couldn’t catch Norway’s Eirik Brandsdal for second or hold off France’s Renaud Jay for third. The heat was fast, so Newell had a shot to go through as a “lucky loser” (the two fastest times aside among third- and fourth-place finishers), but three Swedish skiers took off fast in the next heat and bumped Newell out of contention.

What happened: It was a rough start for some of the contenders. Nikita Kriukov needed a photo finish just to get third in his heat, and he was quickly bumped out of lucky loser contention. Petter Northug was left in the dust in his heat, but it was fast enough to get him through. Emil Joensson was the exception, taking first in the fastest of the five heats.

Switzerland’s Dario Cologna defended his skiathlon title a couple of days ago after overcoming an ankle injury this season, but it was costly in the sprint — he fell twice in his heat and barely finished. Not his best event, anyway.

First semifinal: Russia’s Anton Gafarov fell on a sharp downhill turn and stayed down, coming into the stadium nearly three minutes after the leaders in an event that takes less than four minutes. The other five had a blanket finish — 0.76 seconds between first and fifth. Norway’s Ola Vigen Hattestad had a little bit of daylight for first, followed by Sweden’s Teodor Peterson and one more from each country — Norway’s Anders Gloeersen and Sweden’s Marcus Hellner. They went through as lucky losers.

The second semi was slower and more tactical. But Northug, the 2010 bronze medalist in this and four-time medalist overall in Whistler, still couldn’t get in and wound up 16 minutes back. Joensson and Russian favorite Sergey Ustiugov got ahead and held off a challenge from Austria’s Bernhard Tritscher.

The final: Joensson, who has tons of World Cup hardware but no success in the Olympics, dropped far back a few seconds in. Then a massive crash in the downhill turn! Hellner and Gloeersen fell separately, and Ustiugov tripped over Hellner. Joensson, who looked like he was on the verge of dropping out, suddenly pulled into third.

Hattestad and Peterson were ahead of the drama, and there was no way anyone would catch them. Hattestad got a comfortable lead (in sprint terms), and Peterson pulled up on the straightaway, unable to catch him. Then the improbable bronze for Joensson, who collapsed after the finish line, nearly 20 seconds back. Gloeersen came in fourth. The disappointed Ustiugov made his way across 30 seconds later. Then it was Hellner.

Joensson needed to be helped away from the line. The gold and silver medalists, though, felt no pain.

Full results

Sochi recap: Cross-country skiing, men’s skiathlon

Dario Cologna, whose favorite status was in doubt after an injury slowed him through the World Cup season, made the decisive move on the torturous uphill before the finish and held on for gold, while Russia endured another fourth-place result.

Date: 9- Feb

Sport: Cross-country skiing

Event: Men’s skiathlon (15k classical + 15k freestyle)

Medalists: Dario Cologna (Switzerland), Marcus Hellner (Sweden), Martin Johnsrud Sundby (Norway)

SportsMyriad projections: Dario Cologna (Switzerland), Martin Johnsrud Sundby (Norway), Petter Northug (Norway)

How U.S. fared: The early surprise – the USA’s Noah Hoffman stuck with the leaders in his weaker discipline of classical. Then he wiped out on a turn heading into the stadium. He got up, and Italy’s Francesco de Fabiani ran into him. He dropped back and wasn’t a factor again. He finished 35th, 3:12.7 back. Erik Bjornsen was 42nd, 4:26.9 back. Then Brian Gregg (47th, 5:10.9) and Kris Freeman (54th, 6:19.2).

What happened: Format reminder: The skiers go 15 kilometers in classical style, then change skis and poles like they’re in a NASCAR pit stop, then take off in freestyle.

Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Russia’s Alexander Legkov led a pack that broke away in the classical phase. That group had roughly 19 skiers. Legkov ran into some trouble heading into the stadium and dropped to the back of that group, but he made a smooth transition and stayed in the lead group as it dwindled to 17, including four Swedes and three Russians. All three of the SportsMyriad projected medalists took turns at the front in freestyle.

NBC’s insightful Chad Salmela kept pointing out Petter Northug’s tactics. He would push his way to the front and try to slow the pace, figuring he would win a sprint finish. And no one else was able to break away.

Finally, the big move came from Switzerland’s Dario Cologna. He pushed himself to the limit up the final downhill. Three skiers stayed close — Sundby, Sweden’s Marcus Hellner and Maxim Vylegzhanin.

Cologna barely had enough energy to hold off Hellner by 0.4 seconds. One second later, Sundby broke Russia’s hearts, beating Vylegzhanin by 0.1 seconds after more than 68 minutes of racing. One day earlier in the same venue, Russia’s Anton Shipulin was fourth in the biathlon sprint. When will Russia’s agony end?

Quote: “It’s very special for me to win after my injury in November. I didn’t expect to be on the podium some months ago. I can’t believe I won the first race.” – Dario Cologna

Full results

Sochi recap: Cross-country skiing, women’s skiathlon

No surprise here — Norwegian legend Marit Bjoergen is still going strong, and she never seemed troubled on her way to her fourth Olympic gold medal (third individual). Norway took two medals and showed some tears on the podium as they mourn the sudden death of teammate Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen’s brother.

Date: 8- Feb

Sport: Cross-country skiing

Event: Women’s skiathlon (7.5k classical + 7.5k freestyle)

Medalists: Marit Bjoergen (Norway), Charlotte Kalla (Sweden), Heidi Weng (Norway)

SportsMyriad projections: Marit Bjoergen (Norway), Therese Johaug (Norway), Kristin Stoermer Steira (Norway)

How U.S. fared: Not a factor in the classical phase, but Jessie Diggins pulled out something special in the freestyle and led a chase group to take eighth place overall, 1:31.9 seconds back. Liz Stephen was also in that group, taking 12th. Sadie Bjornsen placed 31st, 2:36.1 behind Bjoergen. Holly Brooks was four minutes back in 47th.

What happened: A lead pack of about 12, including all the favorites, pulled away over the second lap (of two) in the classical phase. It dwindled to six heading into the transition, where skiers switched skis and poles. It all went wrong there for Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk, who slipped just before the changeover point and lost a few seconds right away.

The top five, including three Norwegians, were separated by only 2.1 seconds after the transition, and they stuck together through the first lap of freestyle while Kowalczyk chased. But the Polish favorite, better at classical than freestyle, lost ground.

With 1.7 kilometers left, the five leaders were still within 1 second of each other. On the last hill, Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla threw down, surging ahead. Only Norwegian favorite Marit Bjoergen could respond, leaving the other three battling for bronze a little more than 10 seconds back. Bjoergen shot past Kalla down the stretch for her eighth Olympic medal, fourth gold. Heidi Weng made it two medals for Norway, just edging out fellow Norwegian Therese Johaug and Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen.

Quote: “My fantastic girls … You are my strength in thick and thin. Thanks for the commemorating armbands. Forever grateful, whether there will be medals or not.” – Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen

Full results