KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Erik Bjornsen had been quite mesmerized by his surroundings upon arriving at the Sochi Winter Olympics last week.
He and other cross country skiers are being housed in a mountaintop village at the foot of their equally picturesque competition area.
“Nobody told me,” he had tweeted, “I was going to heaven to have a huge ski race!!”
Bjornsen’s first competition Sunday didn’t alter those heavenly sentiments.
The 22-year-old from Winthrop, Wash., placed 42nd among 68 competitors in the skiathlon, gliding and straining across the race’s 18.6 miles in 1:12:42.3.
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But his time and placement weren’t as important to Bjornsen as the involvement.
“Once I got down that last lap it hit me,” a beaming and still red-faced Bjornsen said soon after finishing. “I was like, ‘I’m going to be an Olympian after this next lap.’ It was a lot of fun. It was sweet.”
Bjornsen was 33rd after skiers finished the first 15K of the two-part skiathlon, performed in the Classic style, where Bjornsen is superior. The second 15K is a freestyle race.
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He still has a sprint and classic 15K races ahead in these Games, so Sunday was approached as preparation for those, said Erik Flora, Bjornsen’s coach at Alaska Pacific University and an assistant with the U.S. team here.
“Today he became an Olympian,” Flora said. “To a certain degree, he couldn’t lose. This is just a winning experience. He’s young to make the Olympic team. He’s also on an incredible climb in his career.’’
For that reason, Flora added, the Olympics were approached with the big picture in view.
“When we talked about his goals for this season,” Flora said, “the Olympics was kind of a bonus. Kind of what it gives him is a chance to come here and see what the Games are all about and then come back in four years and take a step forward. His goal here is just gaining experience. Today, in that light, was fantastic.”
Bjornsen was second among four U.S. competitors.
“There’s a lot of racing ahead,” Bjornsen said. “The goal was to just use this as a start race and the sprint and the 15K classic are kind of the big races for me in this championship. I had a good 15K (classic) today so that was kind of a confidence builder. I mean, it was the Olympics, it was so fun. This is awesome.”
It was also quite a challenge on a course with significant uphill sections.
“I got done with the classic and first time going up this big hill and my legs were cramping a little bit,” he said. “But I was kind of like, ‘I’ll keep going with it.’ By the last lap I was thinking maybe I should have pushed a little harder, but I was feeling good and I was able to out-sprint the two guys I was skiing with so that was good. I felt like I dug deep on a lap or two but I’m ready for the sprint. It was a good race to prep for that.’’
The sprint comes Tuesday and the 15K classic Friday.
Making the experience even better for Bjornsen is that he’s accompanied by fellow Olympian and older sister Sadie, whose week began with a 31st-place finish Saturday in the women’s skiathlon.
“It’s been awesome,” Erik Bjornsen said. “This has been a goal of both of ours for a long time, so to achieve it together is a lot of fun. My family is at home cheering us on.”
Kevin Tresolini writes for The News Journal (Wilmington, Del.).