The Sochi Experience

simi_hamiltonFor the second-consecutive Winter Olympics, cross-country skier Simi Hamilton ’09 competed for the United States. We look back on his road to Sochi.

American cross-country skier Simeon “Simi” Hamilton ’09, a three-time NCAA All-American at Middlebury, did something on December 31 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, that no American male had done in more than 30 years. He won a cross-country World Cup race.

In a 1.5km sprint freestyle (skating) race, Hamilton won a frantic fight on the final straightaway with Canada’s Alex Harvey and Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway to take his first-ever leg of the Tour de Ski, part of the cross-country World Cup circuit, and earn his first World Cup podium (top three) finish. The win was also the first by an American male on the World Cup since Bill Koch won the Sarajevo 30km event in February 1983.

With the Sochi Games just a month away, there was suddenly a bit of additional media glare on Hamilton’s Olympic prospects. Hamilton, from Aspen, Colorado, arrived in Sochi being talked about as a contender in the sprint events. And he would not have disagreed with that assessment.

As it happened, the Olympics didn’t go as well as he’d hoped. All the Olympic cross-country races were held at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center, a lovely venue at the top of a long cable-car ride, a couple of thousand vertical feet above the mountain town of Krasnaya Polyana. Most of the early races, in particular, were held in sweltering temperatures, for world-class skiing, in the mid-50s. There was plenty of snow up at Laura, but its consistency was constantly shifting – slush in the sunshine, glare ice in the shadows – and ski techs had a tough time dialing in base preparations and wax choices. In fact, one of the biggest stories in cross-country racing at the Games was the inability of the vaunted Norwegian team to provide its athletes with skis that worked.

So, against this backdrop, in the men’s 1.8km sprint freestyle, Hamilton made it to the quarterfinals, but finished sixth in his heat, with only the top two advancing, leaving him in 27th place overall. He was part of the 4x10km relay team for Team USA that finished 11th. And he teamed with Erik Bjornsen in the men’s team sprint classic event, qualifying for the finals and finishing a respectable sixth overall. Bjornsen, a distance specialist, was pinch-hitting for Hamilton’s usual sprint partner, Andy Newell, who was knocked out by illness.

“I was really hoping for a little more success here,” he said right after the team sprint on February 19, during which he ran six laps of a grueling 1.8km course. “I feel like I’ve had a lot of good international experience over the years, and I’ve been progressing every single season. Last year was kind of a frustrating season with a lot of illness, but this year I feel like I made some really big gains, and I’ve felt fitter than I ever have and my speed is a lot better.

“So, to come here and be 27th in the sprint was definitely a little frustrating. But you know, at the same time, I think one of my strengths is just looking at the big picture, and I think being a good ski racer means that you’re a well-rounded racer, and you can process things, and take them in stride and learn from them. And the more you ski race, the more you realize that not every day is going to be the best day ever.”

While he found his Olympic experience somewhat frustrating, his focus is on the future. “I was looking forward to this day [the team sprint] all week, he said, “and now I’m looking forward to getting some really good training in over the next 10 days before we have a skate sprint in Lahti, Finland, and finishing out the season really well.

“Yeah, it’s a cool experience being here with a great team and a great staff, in a beautiful place, and my family’s here. No matter what the result is, we’re just lucky to be on this team and be here and represent the U.S.”

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