Many times at the Olympics, the final read on success is made in the glance at the podium. Gold, silver, bronze medalists. Then done.
U.S. cross-country skier Scott Patterson won’t be listed in the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 medal table for the 50-kilometer mass start classic race. But that doesn’t make what Patterson, a first-time Olympian from Alaska, accomplished on Saturday any less notable.
Patterson finished 11th, which is the best American finish in the event in Olympic history. The previous best was held by Bill Koch, who was 13th at both the Innsbruck 1976 and Lake Placid 1980 Games.
Patterson grew stronger and faster as the race wore on at the Alpensia Cross-Country Centre, jumping from 34th place at the 5-kilometer mark to 14th at 40 kilometers.
Finland’s Iivo Niskanen won gold, in 2:08:22.2. Patterson finished in 2:13:14.2, which was 2 minutes, 15 seconds from the podium in a race that last over 2 hours. U.S. teammates Noah Hoffman took 33rd and Tyler Kornfield was 48th.
The strong finish in the grueling 50-kilometer race caps off a significant Olympics for Patterson. He competed in three events: 20-kilometer freestyle, 50-kilometer classic and the 30-kilometer skiathlon. He ended as the top American finisher in all three races.
Patterson’s success over the past two weeks, even being in the Olympics, seemed unlikely in 2015, when he was seriously injured during a race. He was training with an Alaska Pacific University teammate, when the two collided on a corner.
His teammate’s ski punctured Patterson’s thigh, requiring surgery to remove the ski shards. A few days later, he developed a potentially-fatal pulmonary embolism in his lungs, but survived thanks to good medical intervention.
Two months later, he was back to competitive skiing.
And three years later, he’s now set the new American Olympic finish to beat in 50-kilometer cross-country.
Patterson’s happy story folds in nicely with the overall joy for U.S. cross-country in PyeongChang. Coming into these Games, Koch was Team USA’s only medal-winner in cross-country, taking silver in 1976 the 30-kilometer.
He now has company, as Americans Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins won gold in the women’s team sprint.
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.