ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA — Appreciating the significance of Scott Patterson’s eighth place finish in Saturday’s Olympic cross-country ski race requires a quick trip through the history books.
An American man has only placed that high at an Olympic cross-country race once, when Bill Koch won a silver medal in 1976. That was the year Gerald Ford was president, Steve Jobs helped found Apple and the original “Rocky” movie was playing in theaters.
Patterson, who lives and trains in Anchorage with the Alaska Pacific University elite club team, delivered a performance for the ages Saturday, skiing with the lead pack for almost the entire race that cold and wind forced organizers to shorten to 28 kilometers from 50 kilometers.
But he can’t help wanting a little more.
“I’m happy,” he said in an interview after the race. “I came in wanting the top 10, and got it today. It’s a little tantalizing to be in eighth, and 33 seconds back from the win.”
Patterson, 30, barely qualified for the American Olympic team before producing its best performance in decades.
He broke his wrist in a summer bike crash, then, when his recovery didn’t go as planned, had surgery just before the start of the racing season to permanently implant two metal screws — casting his fitness and his plans for Beijing into doubt.
Instead, he’s found the best form of his life in Zhangjiakou, the mountain resort town outside Beijing that’s hosting the cross-country races.
American ski fans watching late at night found themselves treated to a thrilling performance, while U.S. coaches in Zhangjiakou found themselves congratulated by an array of international rivals, from German coaches to Norwegian star athletes.
“This is, for sure, one of the goals that our men’s program wants: to start breaking through in one of the ultimate races of the Olympics,” said Matt Whitcomb, the U.S. Ski Team’s head coach. “To do that today, under conditions like this, is such a huge success for our program and for Scott and for his club, APU.”
Whitcomb added: “He earned this sucker today. It was brutal.”
Patterson started the race in a big pack, as the men’s field was buffeted by gusts that hit 30 mph. The wind made for messy skiing, with athletes bunching up as they sheltered behind each other.
Patterson stayed out of trouble and toward the front of the pack as the pace picked up, ultimately ending up in a group of leaders that included the eventual winner, Alexander Bolshunov of Russia. He held on all the way until the last lap, when Bolshunov’s pace was too tough to match.
“Scott was so strong hanging in there with the Russians and Norwegians,” said his sister Caitlin Patterson, who watched from the side of the trail. “Just, the other guys were a little stronger in the end.”
The Patterson siblings couldn’t help but wish the race had been run at its full 50-kilometer distance. Scott specializes in long distance, and said he would have preferred a more grinding race to Saturday’s faster, surging pace.
“But I’m psyched with how it went. This is pretty special,” he said. “No fault to the organizers — I think they had a tough decision and made a decent call with it.”
Saturday’s race was the last of the Olympics for Patterson; it follows another strong performance in the Games-opening pursuit race, in which he finished 11th.
From Zhangjiakou, Patterson travels to Finland for more racing on the top-level World Cup circuit, which continues afterward to events in Norway, Sweden and Russia.
After that, Patterson’s not sure what’s next for his career — but he’s said he’s open to recruitment by the European teams that specialize in long-distance ski racing.
After Saturday’s finish, he should probably expect a call.
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.