Cross-country ski racing can be wildly entertaining — even more electrifying than the X Games. When Andy Newell raced overseas for the first time, at 16, he saw thousands of people at his junior race in Poland and “cameras everywhere” broadcasting it on live TV. He had already committed to 380 hours of training a year for the sport in eighth grade, but now he was hooked. Three years later, in Italy, he saw 50,000 to 70,000 people lining the course and screaming so loudly he could barely hear. He redoubled his commitment. As Sochi approaches, the 30-year-old Vermont native has been training 800 hours a year so he can push the limits in the sport he says was “badass” well before the X Games. The best part? The sprints. The two-time Olympian explains.
If someone said, “I’ve got one day at the Olympics and have a choice of watching Nordic combined, biathlon or cross-country skiing,” how would you persuade them that cross-country is the best choice?
I’d sell them on the sprint. That’s where you’re going to see the most people racing. Men and women race intertwined. Women qualify, men qualify. Women’s quarters, men’s quarters. There’s so much skiing; that’s why sprints bring in such big crowds. In Norway, you’ll have 80,000 people packed around a one-kilometer loop, so it’s 10 or 15 deep all around. It’s gladiator style. You’re out there battling for your country. Anything can happen in sprint races. Crashes. You can have someone take you out completely and be out of the medals. It’s the original skicross, basically.
|Andy Newell poses on the podium after winning the men's cross-country skiing sprint freestyle of the Winter Games NZ on Aug. 15, 2013 in Queenstown, New Zealand.
Individual sprints involve heats of six athletes, but you can only fit about two side-by-side when you’re skate skiing (the technique required in Sochi). Are you allowed to have contact in the pack?
You’re not supposed to. There’s legal and illegal blocking. You can’t obstruct somebody in the finish lanes, or ski over somebody to the point where you hit their boots. They say you’re not supposed to blatantly ski over people’s skis but we do all the time. If we see a few inches of open snow, we’re going to try to get in that. Broken skis, broken poles, they happen on a daily basis on the world cup. I’ve been DQ’ed for grabbing people’s poles. I wasn’t going to pull [the guy] back, I was trying to get on the other side of him.
When you race, what are you known for, tactically?
I’m notorious for being quite risky, not afraid to crash or pass somebody on the inside of a corner — which has gotten me a reputation in Europe as the crazy American that will try to pass you when there’s only two inches of space to get your skis between. It’s gotten me into a lot of crashes, but it’s also helped me make a lot of finals.
Speaking of crazy, a few years ago, there was video of you throwing tricks on your skinny Nordic skis and free-heel bindings.
Yeah, huge backflips off table tops on my cross-country skis. It never occurred to me to do it on alpine skis or snowboard. It’s just because that’s what I had on my feet. That was my mode of skiing. I started cross-country skiing at 5, and was hitting jumps on cross-country skis by age 6. I feel like I could ski anything. That mentality’s gotten me to the point where I’m more comfortable moving at high speeds in a cross-country race than anybody else out there.
You used to say you wanted to put the X in cross-country skiing. So you freshened up the sport’s image and even hopped into the halfpipe. Have you ever talked to X Games organizers to try to get Nordic skiing in there?
I’ve never been super-involved with anybody in the X Games world. To me, cross-country skiing is older than the X Games. It’s the original hardcore badass sport. [Cross-country] skiers in Europe have forever been the legends of winter sports. To me, that is as extreme as anything else. Pushing yourself across the finish line so hard that you have to puke when you’re done is as extreme as doing a double backflip in the halfpipe, I think. It’s the same mentality. Yeah, I did tricks on my skis but cross-country skiing in the halfpipe is never going to be an event nor did I ever want it to be an event. It’s just what I do for fun.
|Andy Newell collapses in exhaustion at the finish line of the team pursuit at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 22, 2010.|
There is a crazy X Games-like Nordic event, though, isn’t there?
Yes, Red Bull Nordix. I competed one year, in the spring of 2012 in Oslo. There were over 10,000 people, for sure, watching, and Norway is very traditionalist when it comes to cross-country skiing. I mean, the Norwegians want to see the individual start 50K at the Holmenkollen every single year.
What did the event involve?
It’s basically skicross on cross-country skis. The start gate would drop, and it’s a downhill cross-country race over some jumps, corners and one uphill. They usually stick the uphill in it to make it more “traditional” cross-country skiing.
How did you do?
Not that well. Petter Northug and Marcus Hellner — the top Norwegian and Swedish skiers, and I — they automatically put us in the quarterfinals. When live TV was on, they were: Okay, you start now. They gave us the last lane choice because everyone else had raced through heats. If you weren’t in the top two or three you couldn’t pass on that course, so all of us got eliminated in the quarterfinals. It was funny. Their plan backfired slightly. But it was all for the fans, for the crowd.
In Sochi, your main event will be the individual sprint, on Feb. 11. Explain the men’s race.
We’ll ski a 1.8-kilometer loop. It takes about four minutes, depending on snow conditions. Maybe 3:45 on a fast day. Sochi is a really long sprint and there are two hills in the men’s race. The second one is one of the biggest climbs we’ve ever sprinted up. It’s huge, maybe 400 meters. It takes about 45 seconds to get up this thing, if not up to a minute of steady climbing. That’s quite a bit in a sprint. I think it’s going to come down to the hill for sure. You’re going to see close finishes, and I think you need to make your move early on. I think if you’re in fourth or fifth by the stadium, it’s going to be hard to pass.
Where is this monster hill?
Towards the end. You go up a big hill, then you drop down, do a sketchy corner — where I’ll try my best not to crash like I did in Vancouver — then into the stadium. You’ll see four or five guys sprinting to the line basically doing splits at 40 miles an hour on skis to get our toes across the line first.
And you have to race this beast four times to take a medal? In qualifying, quarterfinals, semifinals and final?
Yep, all within two hours of one another. That’s where the fitness really comes in.
So are you planning to kill everyone on the uphill or the downhill?
I’m one of the smaller guys. I’m 5-11 on my tallest days, and weigh between 155 and 160. I’m racing guys that are 190. On a downhill, I’m just not as fast as those guys. But the [Sochi] course can suit me for sure. Instead of a screaming downhill into the stadium it’s more technical, like a downhill into a corner. I’m known internationally as somebody who skis the corners and transitions faster than anybody in the world, even though I crashed in the Vancouver Olympics on a corner.
Just wondering: How many skis do you take on the road, since you break so many and you compete in both styles (classical and freestyle) and a variety of distances?
We try to keep it to 30 pairs of skis, but most of the time it’s between 30 and 35 for each season. And each country employs their own full-time wax techs. Any big skiing country has a huge tour bus where the walls come out to make a huge wax room. The Norwegians probably have like a 35-person staff and three semi-trucks at each race. Those trucks cost several million dollars because they have state-of-the-art waxing air-filtration systems. Waxer health is a big issue. Our wax techs breathe lots of bad fumes so they [wear] huge tanks with hoses. They’re like spacemen.
How many wax trucks does the U.S. have?
The U.S. is one of the only major nations that doesn’t have a wax truck anymore. We drive a rented cargo truck. It doesn’t even say U.S. Ski Team. It says the name of the rental company on it. It’s hilarious.
That’s kind of retro. Have there been any revolutionary changes in the sport recently?
Technique is always changing. It’s becoming more aggressive. Like literally jump skating up these hills. Back in the 1950s, skiing was all about how efficient can you ski. Now with sprinting in the 2000s, it’s become how fast can we ski.
What about technology?
Ski companies are constantly pushing the envelope. Because our speed has increased, ski companies are all about how much power can you get down onto the snow.
Anything wacky looking?
Yeah, after the Vancouver Games, Fischer came up with skis that have holes in the tips. The cut-out helps balance and it’s lighter. And Swix has come up with super-stiff triangular poles. They’re not round. [The shaft] is molded like a triangle to be more aerodynamic. We also have all carbon fiber boots now. But whatever [equipment] you race on has to be sold on the market. You can’t just go make your own boot. And you can’t have any battery-operated things on you, which is why you can’t have radios or batteries on your skis that heat up the snow.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.