After following US cross-country ski racing for several years, I was as loyal and avid a fan as the 2002 Olympic team could wish for. No American had won an Olympic medal for cross-country skiing since 1976. But Utah was home turf, and I was ready to cheer my head off for the Americans competing in the men's relay that day.
On a shuttle bus to Soldier Hollow, I watched the antics of a group of Norwegian fans dressed like Vikings, complete with fur and horns. I thought them rather silly.
The main gate resonated with a mix of languages as colorful as the flags waving high in the Rocky Mountain breeze. Hurrying through, I hiked up the hills inside the race course, from which I'd be able to see most of the 5 kilometer loop.
I focused my binoculars on the starting line in the stadium far below and strained to make out the red, white, and blue uniform of John Bauer, who would ski the first 10-kilometer leg for the United States. He looked awfully small compared with the Europeans beside him.
Bang! They were off. The roar of the crowd in the stadium wafted up the hillside. I watched the pack funnel out of the stadium and up the first hill. Oh, the glory of all those powerful athletes making chaff of the steep inclines. In no time they devoured the hill I stood on. But John was fourth from the last.
"Go, John!" I yelled as he bounded past me. I jogged to another spot on the course and waited for the racers to come into view again. There! Belarus was out front, then Norway, then.... My heart leapt. John was in third place!
"Yeah, John!" I screamed. "Go for it!" I was incredulous. He couldn't possibly keep this up. But on his second lap, he was still up there. Being lighter than the others, John lost some of his advantage on the downhills, but he finished his leg in fourth place. Amazing!
Of course, our next skier couldn't be expected to keep that up. Americans are supposed to be the underdog in this sport. But 22-year-old Kris Freeman skied another blistering leg, at roughly the same pace as the Norwegian leader. I ran through the churned-up snow from one viewpoint to another, panting, and cheered until my throat hurt. Kris handed off to the next American only 14 seconds back from second place. We were within reach of a medal!
On the third leg the field began to string out. Our No. 3 man settled into fifth place, and drama on the front line drew my attention. The Italian had stolen the lead from the Norwegian, and the Norwegian fans were on edge: The men's relay is their Super Bowl.
Their anchorman, Thomas Alsgaard, waited in the tag zone. When his teammate caught him, he rocketed out of the stadium. He kept his lead, but the No. 4 Italian stuck to his tail like velcro. The two pulled way ahead of the rest of the field.
I began to sympathize with the tall, dark-haired Alsgaard, always leading while the bleached-blond Zorzi always drafted him. On the toughest uphill, Alsgaard made a gargantuan effort to outski Zorzi. The Italian bluffed a sprint and passed Alsgaard. Then, having accomplished his purpose of getting Alsgaard to slow his break-away pace, Zorzi backed off, inviting Alsgaard to pass him again so Zorzi could draft the Norwegian on the approaching downhill.
Alsgaard's shoulders slumped and his arms went limp. Through my binoculars I saw the frustrated Norwegian poke Zorzi in the boot with his pole. But Zorzi refused to lead. They both slowed almost to a stop.
"All right," you could almost hear Alsgaard say, "this is stupid." He accepted the lead, and Zorzi drafted him into the stadium for the final sprint.
"Go, Alsgaard!" I urged from behind my binoculars.
Norwegian flags churned along the homestretch. About 200 meters from the finish, Zorzi pulled ahead. I held my breath. But Alsgaard powered past him just before the line, punching and kicking the air in triumph. I jumped up and down and shook my cowbell like crazy along with the Norwegian fans.
The American anchor, Carl Swenson, finished half a second behind fourth place – way ahead of supposedly superior teams. My chest swelled. Later, I saw a group of Norwegian fans crowd around a racer, warmly congratulating him and asking for his autograph. He wore a red, white, and blue suit. It was our own Kris Freeman. We fans had crossed one another's lines. Four years later, watching the men's relay on TV, I would sympathize with the Italian team, who through hard work finally achieved victory. But today, my heart was with the Norwegians.
I approached a young man carrying a huge Norwegian flag. "I'm glad your team won," I said.
"You are?" he said. I laughed and told him how I'd been rooting for Alsgaard during that crazy last lap. We chatted under the bouquet of flags planted side by side under the wide Utah sky. Then I said goodbye with a warmth I couldn't have imagined when I first looked down at those Viking horns. So this was what the Olympics were about.