APU's busy Erik Bjornsen shines for US in Olympics team sprint

Beth Bragg
Nathaniel Herz

The best result by an Anchorage skier at the Winter Olympics?

That would be Erik Bjornsen's sixth-place finish in Wednesday's classic team sprint, Bjornsen's fifth race at the Sochi Games.

Bjornsen and Simi Hamilton of Aspen, Colo., earned the highest result so far for the American men and tied the best result for the entire team, matching Sophie Caldwell's sixth-place finish in last week's individual sprint.

On several occasions Wednesday, in both the semifinal and final, Bjornsen showed why the U.S. Ski Team chose him to replace ailing Andy Newell in the two-man relay. It was the best race at a busy Olympics for Bjornsen, 22.

The youngest skier on the team, Bjornsen is the only American man to ski in every cross-country race so far in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.

"I'm super-psyched for him," U.S. Ski Team head coach Chris Grover told fasterskier.com. "He's going to be a skier for the future. Here he is five races deep into the Olympic Winter Games -- having (recently) raced U-23 champs, having skied a World Cup right after the U-23 champs, right before coming here.

"He was strong. He was strong all day. And so it's really exciting."

Bjornsen displayed impressive power on the final leg of Wednesday's semifinal, surging into first place briefly before finishing fifth in the fastest of the day's two qualifying heats. In the team sprint, two skiers alternate legs for a total of six laps.

"My goal coming into today was to make it into the finals," Bjornsen said. "So that first heat, I was just thinking the whole time, how am I going to make it into the top two? I got the chance in the last lap, and I just went for it.

"I mean, that's one of the best efforts I've had since I got here."

Bjornsen, who is from Winthrop, Wash., moved to Anchorage a few years ago to ski for UAA. He earned NCAA All-America honors for the Seawolves before leaving to join the Alaska Pacific University's nordic program, following the same path taken by older sister Sadie. APU landed four skiers on the Olympic team -- the Bjornsen siblings, Kikkan Randall and Holly Brooks. Randall skied the women's team sprint with Caldwell on Wednesday, finishing eighth.

Bjornsen said his hard semifinal effort hurt him a little in the finals. Hamilton skied first, putting the Americans in sixth place in the 10-team field. They were in seventh and eighth place for the next four exchanges, and then Bjornsen managed to grab sixth in the final leg -- thanks to the misfortune of the German team.

Germany, Finland and Russia were involved in a three-man battle coming off the tight corner at the end of the course's final downhill. The three were jockeying for position when Germany's Tim Tscharnke tangled skis with the Finn and went crashing to the ground.

The Finn emerged unscathed and broke away for the win. Tscharnke almost took the Russian down with him, but the Russian managed to stay on his feet, although the bobble cost him a shot at the gold.

Germany faded all the way to seventh place and later lost an appeal, which claimed the Finn interfered with Tscharnke.

Bjornsen said he couldn't believe it when he hit the straightaway and saw that Tscharnke was barely racing.

"I saw at the finish this German guy was walking," Bjornsen said, "and I was like, 'What is this guy doing, is he still racing? I'm going for it!' Sixth place, that's awesome!"