The 86th Vasaloppet, described as the largest (15,000 skiers), longest (90km), and oldest (1921) ski race in the world, was run in Sweden on Sunday morning. The race is an amazing spectacle and a magnificent athletic event. The Swedes pay attention to it the same way Americans pay attention to the Super Bowl, with the key difference that tens of thousands of Swedes (and others from all over the world) actually get to race in the Vasaloppet itself or in the daily races that lead up to the big event over the previous week.
Being a fan of nordic skiing, I got up very early to watch the webcast of the race on Swedish TV. I wasn’t disappointed, as my liveblog on my other blog shows: Both the men’s and the women’s races were great, with plenty of suspense, great tactics, and excellent finishes, but the men’s race was the culmination of a story of athletic redemption that I find kind of inspiring.
On the men’s side, this year’s race was fairly typical. A big pack of racers traveled together over the first third or so of the race – that is, 30km or about 19 miles. Over the second third, that pack was slowly winnowed down as the weaker racers dropped away and those who were feeling strong pushed the pace. In the last third of the race (the chunk that I liveblogged), the shrinking lead group was finally cracked under the relentless and rather incredible power of the Swedish skier Daniel Tynell, who surged again and again. Only three skiers could follow Tynell, who has won the Vasaloppet three times: the Norwegian racer Jørgen Aukland (who won the race in 2008); Stanislav Rezac, a Czech racer; and Jörgen Brink, a Swedish skier who was numbered among the best in the world about ten years ago, but had only recently turned to the ultra-long distance ski marathons. Over the last 10k, Tynell tried again and again to escape from Aukland, Rezac, and Brink, but he simply couldn’t do it, and finally decided to sit in, conserve his strength, and then win the sprint to the finish line in Mora.
He tried to hardest to execute that plan, but he didn’t count on Brink, who had done very little work over the previous 30 or so kilometers. As the foursome rushed toward the line, cheered on by thousands of spectators, Brink jumped out from behind Tynell and put in a big push. Tynell counterattacked, but Brink went even harder and eked out the victory by the length of a ski boot – less than a second, after racing for 4 hours, 2 minutes, and 59 seconds. (You can see the sprint at about the 50-second mark of this video.)
Winning the most prestigious race outside of the Olympics and World Championships is a momentous act of redemption for Brink, for until now he has been best known – not to say notorious – for one of the worst and strangest events in cross-country skiing, a bizarre mental and physical collapse in the men’s relay at the 2003 World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy. He cost Sweden a gold medal in the race, the marquee event at any World Championships or Olympics, and the event more than any other which establishes a country at the best ski country in the world.
Wearing bib number 13, Brink started the last leg of the relay with a sizable 10-second lead over Russia and more than 20 seconds over Norway and Germany. But Norway’s anchor leg skier was the formidable Thomas Alsgaard, who was notorious for his power and speed at the end of races, especially relay races. Going into the 2003 Worlds, Alsgaard had delivered two gold medals at the two previous Olympics, and everyone at Val di Fiemme knew that he would try very hard to close the gap to Brink and win the gold for Norway.
Nobody knew this more than Brink, of course. He skied strongly until about 8km into his 10km leg, at which point – he said afterwards – he was simply overwhelmed by the stress of knowing he was being hunted down by Alsgaard. On the last big climb of the race, with basically just one long downhill to the stadium and the win, Brink slowed nearly to a stop, blacked out, and lost the race. The event happens about a minute into this video. Listen to the disbelief and excitement in the Norwegian announcers’ voices: they’ve literally never seen anything like this before.
To his credit, Brink rallied after Alsgaard and Teichmann sailed past him, saving at least the bronze for Sweden, but it was a monumental “kollaps,” and it basically ruined Brink. The phrase “do a Brink” even became a cruel bit of slang in Norway. After winning another bronze in an individual race the next week, his skiing fortunes declined rapidly and precipitously. He performed poorly enough that he lost his spot on the Swedish national team by 2005, at an age when he should have been nearing the peak of his powers. Though he tried the Vasaloppet in 2007 and finished third, he nonetheless abandoned cross-country skiing in favor of the skiing-and-shooting sport of biathlon, avowedly aiming to make Sweden’s 2010 Olympic team. Hardly a marksman, he found little success, and wasn’t chosen for Vancouver.
I think most people would have hung up their skis at this point, but Brink didn’t. Seeing that Sweden’s national cross-country ski team was now full of talent, he chose instead to try his hand at the ultra-long distance events of the “Marathon Cup,” a circuit which includes the Vasaloppet. And here he has found success, taking a hard-fought second place in a big marathon in Estonia and now winning the Vasaloppet in exciting and historic fashion.