Feb 11, 2014 – 6:01 PM EST
Last Updated: Feb 12, 2014 – 3:56 AM EST
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia — Justin Wadsworth knew Anton Gafarov, or at least, knew who he was. He had seen him around cross-country skiing World Cups, at various competitions, knew he was Russian, a pretty good sprinter. Nothing more, though. They had never spoken.
So Wadsworth, a coach with the Canadian cross-country team, knew it was Anton Gafarov he was watching thrash helplessly, one ski mangled and twisted and breaking apart. On Tuesday, in a men’s sprint qualifier, Gafarov had fallen and his ski had snapped. He rose to his feet and pulled himself up a hill, slowly and awkwardly, with his arms and his poles. The rest of the blade split on the downhill, and he fell again. He was racing in the Olympics, on home soil. He got up again.
Wadsworth was holding a ski for his own guy, Alex Harvey, but Canada’s skiers were already out. He was a couple deep snowbanks above Gafarov. There were Russian coaches around, but none of them had skis. Gafarov was flailing away, a wounded bird. Justin Wadsworth scrambled over a snowbank.
“I really felt like, at that point, in front of his home crowd — and he was a guy that I think the Russians pinned some hope on today, because he was quite a good sprinter — I just wanted him to finish the race in front of his home crowd, with dignity,” said Wadsworth. “Not having to hobble across the line on one ski.”
Wadsworth scrambled over the second snowbank.
“He never saw me coming,’ said Wadsworth. “He started coming down the hill and fell again because he couldn’t make it on one ski. And I just bolted down the first bank, and the second, and I said, ‘Hey.’ He turned around. He didn’t bend down to pull his binding off; he knew I was going to do it.”
Wadsworth never really looked at Gafarov’s face; he was focused on working quickly. And by the time it was done the Russian was gone, flying again. As of late Tuesday night, he hadn’t heard from the Russian skier, who finished 20th in his 85-man preliminary qualifying heat, 7.75 seconds off the pace. Gafarov finished second in his quarter-final, and sixth in the semifinal. He did not qualify for the six-man final in the men’s sprint, but he got a chance.
Wadsworth’s wife, Canadian cross-country legend Beckie Scott, was analyzing the race for the CBC, and when they saw one another later, she stopped him. He hadn’t thought much about it, but she had.
“Beckie just said, ‘That was a really good thing to do,’ ” said Wadsworth.
Canada has had this brilliant Olympics so far, showered with medals, topping the table for the first time in history until the Norwegians seized it back, and we are feeling pretty good about ourselves. We are enraptured with the Dufour-Lapointe sisters, and we are thrilled again by the electric footwork of Charles Hamelin. We are delighted by our slopestyle team — by Dara Howell and Kim Lamarre and Mark McMorris — and we are reminded how easily Alex Bilodeau and his brother Frederic can make us burst into beautiful tears. Medals are fun. We re-learned that in Vancouver.
But the little things are lovely, and they matter just as much. On Tuesday long-track speed skater Gilmore Junio announced he was giving up his Olympic spot to teammate Denny Morrison, saying he thought Morrison had a better chance. Maybe it wasn’t 100 per cent Junio’s idea, but it sounds like it was his decision. And he made it, for Canada.
We should give some credit to the world, and not just because Wadsworth is a three-time U.S. Olympian who was born in California, and raised in Seattle. Wadsworth was actually on the course in Turin in 2006 when Norwegian coach Bjornar Hakensmoen gave Canadian cross-country skier Sara Renner a pole after hers was broken. He was maybe 50 metres away, and he watched it happen and he thought, yep, that’s what we do. He knew Gafarov was a sprinter, and he knew what kind of pain that required, what kind of suffering. Cross-country is suffering, and if you do it, you know. You want everyone to have an equal chance to suffer better, to suffer best.
Wadsworth never thought about 2006 on Tuesday though, even though his wife was on that team. In that 2006 race, Canada’s sprint duo won silver, almost 11 seconds ahead of Norway. Wadsworth didn’t have a flashback, and decide that karmically, Canada should pay somebody back. He didn’t think of Beckie, or Sara Renner, or Norway.
No, he was just a coach, and there was a skier who needed help. The natural thing. He’s with Canada, now, and he makes us better.
Canada is probably going to come out of these Olympics proud of ourselves, of our great athletes. We are probably going to walk away from Sochi feeling like we proved something to the world. We should.