I didn’t care about cross-country skiing yesterday, and I probably won’t tomorrow. But today we should all bow at the altar of the sport’s most amazing comeback king: Simen Hegstad Kruger.
Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, and the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings: three of the most dominant sports figures of all time. And you never heard of the Red Stockings, which won all 57 games of its inaugural season. But to be fair I didn’t either until I Googled it this morning.
And it’s a safe bet you, like me, also never heard of Simen Hegstad Kruger, the latest ascendent into the Pantheon of Sports Domination. It’s understandable; one of Norway’s preeminent cross-country skiers, Kruger stands as king of a relatively obscure hill.
But his performance during Sunday’s skiathlon race, a 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) race split between skate- and classic-style skiing, stands as one of the most harrowing comeback victories in Olympic history. And I, like millions of other what-is-a-skiathlon Olympic fans, nearly missed it.
Why was it a big deal? Because after crashing hard and breaking a pole near the start, Kruger climbed from dead f*ing last to Olympic gold medalist over the course of 30 grueling kilometers against 67 of the greatest athletes on Earth. Never say die!
We All Missed the Olympic Skiathlon
Prior to the opening ceremonies in Pyeongchang, my winter Olympic watch list (as it does every four years) consisted of figure skating, ice hockey, and downhill ski racing. If I have time, maybe some curling and Jamaican bobsledding for fun.
As such, I paid no mind to the hour-long, 68-man skiathlon. My mistake.
Think of this event like a cross-discipline stage of the Tour de France in which the riders must switch from road to mountain biking halfway through. In the skiathlon, all 68 competitors start en masse on classic skis. At the gun, they tear through the pack to shuffle into a running order and set a tempo for the next 30 kilometers.
Then at the halfway point, they switch out their skis and poles to freestyle, also known as skate skis. All you really need to understand is that all these athletes must master two different forms of skiing and go from one to the other in a gruelingly long race.
And Sunday, 24-year-old Simen Kruger stood at the starting line in his very first Olympic event. Sixty-seven other rosey-cheeked, oak-tree–thighed Jorgens and Magnuses flanked him, poised to launch. Imagine the air around him, thrumming with anticipation and barely contained adrenaline.
(You can see a recap of the action, which NBC keeps under virtually unshareable lock and key, here).
Simen Kruger’s Unbelievable Gold Medal
The piercing pop of the starting gun unleashes mayhem. Scores of world-class skiers barrel onto the 3.75-kilometer course, jockeying for the best position for the eight laps to come.
Kruger finds himself in the middle, jabbing his poles hard into the snow and throwing himself forward through a fog of steamy man-breath and tasseled hats. Then the unthinkable happens: Some muk-yuk clips the tail of Kruger’s skis, sending him ass over tea kettle into the snow.
It was a dramatic start to the skiathlon…
But Simen Kruger made it out to lead a Norway 1-2-3!
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) February 11, 2018
Like a peloton crash, skier after skier plows into the fallen Kruger, who covers his own tassel hat to keep from being gored by a ski pole. When the pow settles, Kruger stands up, regroups, and takes off.
Dead. Freaking. Last.
As if that’s not enough, one ski pole is broken. He casts it aside and snatches another, permissible by Olympic rules. But the group has left him far behind, and Kruger has to expend precious extra energy to catch the tail end of the pack. All this on lap one.
If you speak Norwegian, you can hear Kruger’s take on what happened below.
Kruggernaut Destroys All
For all I can tell, Kruger fell on purpose. He did it to prove that in his chest, where a heart should be, there burns some weird fusion reactor. His legs are pneumatic pistons, and his veins carry some high-octane cocktail of rocket fuel, espresso, and snake venom.
For the next 1 hour, 16 minutes, and 20 seconds, the Krugenator pecked away at the gap, then surged through the pack. By the halfway point – where skiers change equipment – Kruger was 14th. He passed 54 other skiers in four laps.
With the rigid tracks and form of classic skiing behind him, Krugasaurus Rex throttled into freestyle, methodically picking off the desperate leaders. He seized the lead just before last lap, then hit top gear, pulling away from second and third. By the end, he left them all but out of frame from a camera lens none of us was watching!
On the surface, this sounded incredible. But I didn’t fully appreciate it until my friend Andrew, a former high school cross-country coach, gave me his take. He’s not famous, you’ve never met him, but he actually watched the race. Heck, he’s done these races before.
“It is probably every bit as significant as you think it is,” he told me. “These are not high school athletes, where one competitor dominates a field of good to impressively mediocre skiers. These are, allegedly, the greatest skiers in the world that he’s up against. And the guys he passed should not only feel defeated, but deeply ashamed that Kruger caught them, passed them, and left them way behind.”