ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA — Imagine being 21 years old. You’re in a foreign country, 4,000 miles from your family, where you can’t really socialize.
Thousands of people are scrutinizing your job performance. Your job performance is not meeting their expectations, nor is it meeting yours. Journalists are asking for an explanation, and you don’t really have one.
Welcome to U.S. cross-country skier Gus Schumacher’s world at the Beijing Olympics.
Schumacher, who’s seen as America’s Next Great Hope in endurance ski racing, had a nightmare day in his first race at the Games, finishing nine minutes behind the winner in the skiathlon event. His second race was better, but not by much.
This story, however, is not just about those results. It’s about the way that Schumacher has handled himself in spite of them.
After finishing the skiathlon, Schumacher, looking drained and pale, had to pick himself up and walk through a winding maze of fences known as the mixed zone, where a gantlet of international journalists pepper cross-country skiers with questions.
He could have ignored them and gone back to the Olympic village to shower, sulk, or stew — as some of his rivals did.
Instead, near tears, he still wanted to offer an explanation, and a message to those who were watching.
“I don’t want people to doubt me. I don’t really care that much, but that’s something that’s on my mind, because I’ve doubted people before,” said Schumacher. “I know there’s a lot of people at home that believe in me, and who have supported me to get to this point. And I know that they’re proud of me, and that means a lot.”
Athletes like Schumacher go to the Olympics looking for peak performances on the biggest stage in sports. But those lofty goals, and the intense attention that comes with the Games, makes failure that much more excruciating.
Schumacher, who grew up in Anchorage and still trains there, is under a lot of that pressure here, both self-inflicted and external.
Schumacher is laser focused on training. He has a specially designed rollerskiing treadmill installed at his house — and for good reason: Schumacher is brimming with medal-winning potential.
He’s the only American ever to win a race at the World Junior Championships for cross-country skiing, in 2020. He’s proven himself at the adult level on the European World Cup circuit, too, notching top-10 results last season. And the U.S. Ski Team gives him its highest level of support.
“Big expectations on the biggest stage, as one of the best distance skiers,” said Jan Buron, Schumacher’s Anchorage-based coach at the Alaska Winter Stars program. “He knows everyone looks to him to ski fast.”
After a solid season last year, Schumacher’s recent results headed into the Beijing Games had been up and down — but more down than up.
Toward the end of the Tour de Ski, a multi-day event that travels through Switzerland, Germany and Italy, Schumacher got sick. But then he had what Buron described as some great days of training at the U.S. Ski Team’s pre-Olympic altitude camp.
“He looked good and he felt good,” Buron said in a phone interview Sunday. “It was the best he looked in a long time.”
Midway through the Beijing Games, though, Schumacher said he’s feeling kind of weak, with low energy. And he doesn’t have a diagnosis of exactly what’s wrong, which makes the experience especially unsettling.
Buron thinks the problem may be more about the mental and emotional pressure Schumacher faced in qualifying for the Olympics this year, more than it is about problems with training or racing too much.
Schumacher said it’s also possible the effects of his illness could be lingering. But maybe he’s just tired.
“I think we are pretty grounded in the physical feelings of our sport. And when those are weird, you sort of feel like you don’t have an anchor, a little bit,” he said after his race Friday. “That’s tough, to not feel like myself, and not knowing when it’s going to come back.”
The U.S. men’s team’s lack of depth compounds what Schumacher is facing in Beijing.
He’s one of just two American men who have proven capable of competing with top European athletes in distance racing this season. (The U.S. team has a strong up-and-coming crew of young sprinters.)
On deeper teams, struggling athletes might only race once or twice at the Olympics before their coaches would give alternates a shot.
But Schumacher and Scott Patterson, who may be nearing the end of his career, are the only strong distance racers on the U.S. squad.
“When you’re not on, you get to prove that you’re not on four times. And that sucks,” said Kris Freeman, the retired cross-country skier from New Hampshire who was something of a predecessor to Schumacher. “It’s a really tough place to be. It might also be the first time in his career where he’s taking a step sideways, or a step backwards, and is going to have to regroup. And that’s a hard thing to do.”
Schumacher has taken a little extra rest at the Games, just in case, according to U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Matt Whitcomb. But he raced again Sunday in the men’s relay.
For the rest of the Olympics, Schumacher said, he’s contemplating his options. The last race of the Games, the 50-kilometer marathon, may not be the best use of his energy if it’s still possible for him to turn things around this season, he said.
Freeman, Buron, and Schumacher’s teammates all said they’re confident that Schumacher will turn things around.
“Sport can be so hard and so harsh. And it’s a roller coaster, right? The highs are high, the lows are low. But you’re not on the ride alone,” said Jessie Diggins, who won a bronze medal in the women’s sprint event here. “I think it’s a bit of a rite of passage to go through those hard times and know that you’re going to be okay.”
In the meantime, Schumacher said he’s trying to keep his mind off results by spending time with his friends at the Games and “keeping stuff normal.”
And as hard as it is to experience, it’s likely that Schumacher’s time at the Games will ultimately serve him well, according to Buron, his coach. Athletes never learn that much from good races, because there’s less incentive to analyze them, he said.
“I’m sure that what he’s going to learn from this is going to make him a lot more dangerous,” said Luke Jager, a Beijing Olympian who grew up with Schumacher in Anchorage. “As probably one of the leading experts in the world on the subject of Gus skiing fast, in the long term, I’m not worried about it at all.”
Nat Herz is an Anchorage Daily News reporter who’s covering the Olympics for the ADN and FasterSkier.com. He also reported on-site from Games in 2014 in Russia, and 2010 in Vancouver. During the Olympics, he’s regularly contributing to the Devon Kershaw cross-country skiing podcast. Listen here.