Yukon's Knute Johnsgaard wins world cup bronze, qualifies for Olympics
Last-minute decision to go to Sweden becomes 'highlight of my ski career'
Yukon's Knute Johnsgaard had one heck of week — he won a world cup bronze medal as part of Canada's men's cross-country ski team on Sunday, qualifying him to race in the next Winter Olympics.
"Qualifying for my first world championships and then getting my first world cup podium and then qualifying for the Olympics all in one week is just almost too much," he said. "It's pretty unreal."
Early last week, Johnsgaard was training in Canmore after finishing some races in Utah.
"Last week it didn't look like we were going to be able to field a relay team, because there were only three skiers over in Europe and we needed four."
Johnsgaard talked to his coach about going over to Europe so Team Canada could field a relay team, booked a last-minute plane ticket and arrived in Sweden Thursday night for the race on Sunday.
"It was a pretty quick decision but it turned out to be a good one," he said.
As 'a bit of a world cup rookie,' Johnsgaard said he felt some pressure going into the race but "We were kind of the underdogs, so as a team in general there was really no pressure on us because we'd never got a medal in the men's cross-country relay in history. The best ever, I think, was a fifth-place finish."
Veterans Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey began the relay.
"They can hold their own against the best in the world," Johnsgaard said, and he knew he'd be tagged off in good position.
After that it was up to him to stay in the group and try and keep contact with the leaders so he could tag off Len Valjas, who was anchoring, in a similarly good position.
"He's such a good sprinter and I had a lot of confidence in him the way he's been skiing lately," he said.
"I knew that when I tagged off to him just behind the leaders that it could be a special day."
He was watching on the videotron as Valjas kept pace with the leaders and then made a move into second position.
"It was all happening so quick, I didn't know what to do. I was walking the wrong way near the finish line and my teammates Alex and Devon grabbed me by the shirt, turned me around and said 'We've got to go; Lenny could get a podium.'"
"We were standing there by the finish, holding on to our hats, and sure enough Lenny came around the corner and had a great finish and brought us into third place. So that was amazing."
People around the finish line rushed at the team members, who were jumping with excitement.
"It was the best highlight of my ski career for sure."
Johnsgaard thanked Yukoners, saying it wouldn't have been possible without all their support over the years.
"It really means a lot and it's something I'll never take for granted — all the kind people back home with big hearts."
with files from Sandi Coleman