By Michael Stafford-Jones

  • Andrew Musgrave is bidding to become the first British cross-country skiing medalist
  • 27-year-old from Oyne (Scotland) has achieved six top ten finishes in major races in the last two years
  • XXIII Olympic Winter Games begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea on February 9
PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – With the 2018 Winter Games now just days away, in the third of a series of close-ups on some of Team GB’s brightest medal hopes in South Korea, we focus on Andrew Musgrave, the cross-country skier aiming to beat the Norwegians and become Britain’s first Nordic skiing medallist.

 

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Scot looking to break Nordic monopoly

Andrew Musgrave has history in his sights in Pyeongchang as he aims to become the first British athlete to win a Nordic skiing medal. The cross-country skier, 27, achieved his first podium finish in December 2017 when he finished 3rd in a 15km freestyle event in Italy and he believes he can repeat the trick at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

After UK Sport added Musgrave to its World Class Programme, which awards lottery funding, in Summer 2017, the skier told The Telegraph, about his delight at becoming a fully-funded athlete:

 

‘It’s awesome that UK Sport have seen the improvements we’ve been making on the cross country team, and now believes we are a team with podium potential. That gives me a big confidence boost. I will be the prime age for a cross-country skier (at Pyeongchang 2018) and I feel like I ought to be in the fight for a medal.’

 

If you can’t beat them, join them

It is not just Musgrave’s age and lottery backing that mark him out as a serious medal contender. When he was 17, the skier took the bold step of moving to Norway – the spiritual home of cross-country skiing – after he realised there was no expertise or experience of note to draw on in the UK. It is a move that may never have happened without the influence of Roy Young, the father of Musgrave’s teammate Andrew Young.

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When he took over coaching duties at the Huntly Nordic and Outdoor Centre where Musgrave and Young trained following the tragic death of their coach Bob Lacey, Roy had no experience of cross-country skiing, so he called for help. As he told The Telegraph:

 

“If I was coaching rugby I would have looked to New Zealand, but in cross-country skiing Norway are the world leaders so I made contact with them. Luckily I got through to the educational chief of the Norwegian Ski Federation, Per Nymoen, who has been helping us out ever since.”

 

Nymoen’s contacts gave Musgrave the opportunity to spend a year training at a specialist ski gymnasium in Hovden, and the Briton never looked back. He decided to make his move to Norway permanent, and his cross-country results have gradually improved as a result.

 

Story of steady progression

The skier got his first taste of the Olympics in Vancouver 2010 when he finished 51st in the 15km + 15km double pursuit, 55th in the 15km freestyle race and 58th in the individual sprint. Then an achievement four years later made cross-country aficionados sit up and take notice of his talent. In the weeks leading up to Sochi 2014, Musgrave stunned the Norwegian team by beating all their skiers to the national title they use as the benchmark for Olympic selection.

The Norwegian press reacted hysterically, claiming that if a Briton could beat their best cross-country skiers, then they had no chance of success in Sochi. At the Olympics, Ola Vigen Hattestad, the Norwegian athlete who finished second behind Musgrave in the nationals, made a nonsense of the journalists’ predictions by winning gold in the individual sprint.

Meanwhile, Musgrave ended up in 29th place in the same event after a disappointing showing saw him eliminated at the quarter-final stage. Speaking to The Guardian afterwards, he said:

“I skied terribly. On a good day I should be able to beat anyone in the world on a course like this but today I just didn’t have it and it’s a bit hard to swallow right now.”

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Thankfully, the Briton’s results since Sochi show evidence of much greater consistency. He finished 10th in two World Cup events in 2016, then 6th and 9th in World Cup events in 2017, before achieving an impressive 4th place in the 50km freestyle at the 2017 World Championships in Lahti. Musgrave’s first podium in Toblach in Italy came next, before he added another 6th place to his growing list of top-ten World Cup finishes in early 2018. Those results have given Musgrave the confidence he needs to go all-out for a medal at Pyeongchang 2018, but he faces some very strong competition.

 

Three men to beat

Switzerland’s Dario Cologna is chasing a hat-trick of Olympic golds in the 15km pursuit after winning the race in Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014. He is also the reigning Olympic champion in Musgrave’s other individual event at Pyeongchang 2018, the 30km skiathlon, and is currently 2nd on the overall World Cup leaderboard after winning three events since Christmas.

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Frenchman Maurice Manificat leads Cologna in the World Cup standings for Distance events due to his impressive consistency this season. Manificat has won one event and finished in the top 15 on seven other occasions. If the 32-year-old can raise his performance level even higher, an Olympic medal could be on the cards.

Veteran Norwegian Martin Johnsrud Sundby is the proud owner of silver and bronze Olympic medals, but gold has eluded him so far. As he is 34, Pyeongchang 2018 could be his last chance to win the title he craves, and it will be interesting to see whether his vast experience can guide him to victory.

 

Andrew Musgrave will compete in the 30km skiathlon on 11 February, the 15km pursuit on 16 February and the team sprint qualifiers and final on 21 February at the Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Centre in Pyeongchang.

 

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