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Goals: Reverse Splits—Women wanted relay medal; men had another hope

American veteran racer Andy Newell was lit up by the lights of the Alpsensia Olympic Stadium on Saturday night. Leaning alone on the railing in the media zone, he looked quietly over the medal celebrations happening below him among the Norwegian, French and Russian teams and fans. To his right, his young teammates Reese Hanneman and Scott Patterson soaked up a different kind of light, speaking to reporters about their first trip to the big game.

Newell is married to our editor at large, Erika Flowers Newell, and he and I have corresponded a bit for stories here and there, most notably about his motorcycle. And, since I’ve never met he or Erika in the flesh, I thought I’d introduce myself, even though I had no questions about the 4x10km relay he’d just led out for the Americans. Maybe it was that, jet-lag tired, I couldn’t think of anything interesting to ask about a race where, given injury and illness, the depleted Americans would finish last of 14 teams, nearly 10 minutes down.

Norway’s Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo enters the finish lane while American Noah Hoffman takes off for his final 3.3km lap—ensuring the team would finish the race. Photo: Cody Downard

The most celebrated American male skier since Bill Koch, Newell has had an incredible career. So perhaps he was soaking up the light and stillness because he knew this Olympics could be his last. Maybe him standing there alone while his young teammates took the tough questions was a bit of a torch passing in itself. Or maybe he was just smoked, processing the pain of this race as he would any other. He’d already gone through the media zone and been interviewed by countless reporters. I’m sure he was cold, too, since his three-lap classic leg was first.

Veteran Andy Newell (center) rounds a corner with the pack during the first classic leg. Photo: Cody Downard

“Hey Andy, I’m Adam Howard,” I said, as we shook hands. He looked down at my press badge as if, to say, “Who?” “Just wanted to say hello. We really enjoy working with Erika.”

“Ahh, you get to work with my lovely bride,” he said, his eyes cracking a little smile as he stood up from the rail. “She’s an amazing writer.”

“She’s got a lot of talent,” I replied. I thought to suggest to him that she could have a career in writing when she retired from racing, but I didn’t.

We small-talked about the race for a minute, if that. From my interview with his teammate, Kikkan Randall, the previous night, I knew that he’d probably stay away from specifics about how his skis went, whom the coaches had selected and how—he included—the team had skied. He did suggest that they had a goal and met it, but didn’t say what it was, and I didn’t ask. Since it wasn’t really the time for further pleasantries I said, “Nice to finally meet you,” and he returned it as I walked back to the two young guns now being interviewed by the reporters.

Reese Hanneman makes his Olympic debut as the second skier for the U.S. relay team. Photo: Cody Downard

Scott Patterson, who’d skied the first skate leg, was fired up and punch drunk at the thought of what they’d just accomplished in his first Olympics.

“With Erik [Bjornsen] sitting out, with Simi [Hamilton] sitting out, with Paddy [Caldwell] getting sick, we knew we were in a little bit of a tough shape for today, and so not getting lapped was a bit of a goal going in,” Patterson said. “I put in a really strong first lap and was definitely suffering the next two, and I think I gained back a little bit on Russia on that first lap (Russia held an early lead and would finish second). I was getting those splits to not get lapped: [That] was the whole objective while Hoff [Noah Hoffman, who skied the final leg] and I were out there skating.”

Scott Patterson soaking in the light of his first Olympics. Photo: Cody Downard

On Saturday, the much-hyped American women had a goal for the relay: a medal. They didn’t get it, but it was a serious fight and fun as heck to watch. Sunday night, the men had a simpler goal, and they pulled it off: to go out there and fight with everything they had knowing the only thing on the line was their pride. And keeping it, and knowing that they had kept it, would be their accomplishment alone. Not some media thing. Not some medal thing. Something simpler.

“It wasn’t the best day. But we made our goal,” Patterson added with a smile. “I mean, all the coaches were out there like, ‘You got two minutes; you got 1:39; you got…’ just the whole way. It’s not the direction you want to be getting splits. But it’s where we were.”

And Newell knew what Patterson learned Saturday night: they were at the Olympics.