• For complete Olympics coverage, visit our Olympics page.
• Matias Saari is in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games. Get the Alaska perspective here.
WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK — James Southam hung with the best skiers in the world for three-fifths of Sunday’s 50-kilometer classic.
But at 30K, Southam stopped briefly for what he called a “poorly timed” ski change. The seconds he lost were costly.
“Then I just couldn’t find my way back up to the group,” he said.
The Anchorage native had targeted the 50K as his best chance for a strong result. He stayed with the large lead pack — hanging mostly near the back of it — and was just 20 seconds behind after 30 kilometers even though he started cramping 10 kilometers earlier.
Once he lost contact with the train, however, Southam’s pace dropped way off. Nevertheless, he wound up 28th among 53 starters and finished the grueling marathon in 2 hours, 10 minutes and 8 seconds, about 4 1/2 minutes after Norwegian Petter Northug.
“It was my best finish at this level ever, and it was almost amazing,” said Southam, who has competed at three World Championships and two Olympics. “It was better than the rest of the days (at these Olympics) and almost a great day.”
Southam’s effort was the best individual result for the U.S. men at these Olympics. That it came from Southam was a surprise, but sprinters Andy Newell and Torin Koos and distance racer Kris Freeman all underachieved.
The race, contested on a fast track with the temperature again above freezing, likely was the last for Southam at the Olympics. With a wife and young daughter in Anchorage, he said before the games that his final major competition will be the 2011 World Championships in Norway. Southam, 31, was the only American finisher in the Olympic finale.
That’s because Freeman dropped out at 20K after falling behind the pack, ending a devastating games for the New Hampshire native.
“My coaches basically said if you’re out of it early, we want you to stop,” Freeman said. “I think they have the rest of my season in mind.”
Freeman, normally America’s best distance skier, struggled to 59th in the 15K freestyle and took 45th in the 30K pursuit after a blood-sugar crash related to his Type 1 diabetes.
“I never envisioned the Olympics could go this poorly for me. It’s about the worst week of racing I’ve ever had,” Freeman said.
Canadian Devon Kershaw matched his country’s best men’s Olympic cross country result, taking fifth (Ivan Babikov was also fifth in the pursuit here). He was just six-tenths of a second off the podium and had bittersweet emotions of joy and disappointment.
“I paced that race perfectly. I did everything right,” Kershaw said. “I got beat by four stronger skiers today.”
Canada has four strong skiers in Kershaw, Babikov, George Grey and Alex Harvey, and the decision that they would all race Sunday meant Brian McKeever couldn’t. McKeever is legally blind and has mostly just peripheral vision. He was seeking to become the first winter sports athlete to compete in both the Olympics and Paralympics.
“I think the administration went with the guys who were in the best shape,” Kershaw said. “What he’s done is very inspirational. But what we’ve done is, too.”
Axel Teichmann made an inspirational charge to the front that almost won him gold. The German was 30 seconds behind the leaders after changing skis at 40K but worked his way past 18 skiers — despite a pace that was increasing — and attacked on a hill in the final kilometer.
That earned Teichmann the lead coming off a downhill into the stadium, but from there Northug — with his trademark double-poling sprint — took charge, passing the German on the homestretch to win by 0.3 seconds.
Both the gold and silver medalists were elated.
Said Teichmann: “I never dreamed or imagined I would take a medal out of the 50K.”
Said Northug, whose four medals earned him the “King of the Vancouver Games” designation: “I knew that if I’m not falling, that if I’m not breaking a pole, I have a very good chance to sprint down Teichmann.”
Contact staff writer Matias Saari at email@example.com.