SOCHI, Russia — In Sochi this week, Kikkan Randall has a good chance of becoming the first American in nearly four decades to win an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing.
But one of the very last people to touch her skis before she steps to the starting line will be a man from Sweden, a rival nation.
Not to worry: The man, Peter Johansson, is not a saboteur sent by the Swedes to torpedo the Americans’ chances. Instead, he’s the leader of the U.S. team’s small support staff, playing a role that is his sport’s answer to the NASCAR pit crew.
Over the course of 12 Olympic competitions, Johansson and his colleagues will be charged with matching Team USA’s equipment to what are expected to be challenging, erratic conditions in Sochi — a key job in a sport where minute differences in specialized waxes and structures applied to the bottom of skis can make the difference between gold and silver, or even no medal at all.
Johansson, who hails from northern Sweden, works with two Americans, plus a veteran Estonian wax technician named Oleg Ragilo. It’s a crew that, despite its international flavor, works tirelessly to put Americans on the podium.
“You forget that these guys are actually from a different country, because they feel like such an integral part of the team,” said Chris Grover, the head coach of the American team. “They are really invested in the success of the U.S. athletes.”
The wax technicians are start early and quit late, their hands marked with burns, blisters and cracks from repeated exposure to ski waxes and the blowtorches and solvents used to apply and remove them. Their job is to manage the complicated relationship between skis and snow.
Before race day, the technicians use special grinding machines to apply intricate patterns to the skis’ plastic bases, which help them slide more smoothly over certain types of snow crystals.
Then, in the hours before the gun goes off, they test skis out on the trails to help pick the right pair out of the dozens owned by each athlete — and then they apply the sticky waxes that help the skiers grip the track when they push off, and the smooth wax that helps them glide over the snow.
“It’s a full day’s work, for sure,” Johansson said.
It also can be a high-wire act, with decisions on skis and wax sometimes waiting until the last minute.
Sochi will present extra challenges: Its relatively southern location means the sun will rise higher overhead during the day, potentially forcing teams to deal with rapid changes in temperature.
Last year, when the Americans visited during a test event, they were confronted with three straight days of snow, followed closely by warm sun that led to rapid melting and difficult waxing.
Those challenges are compounded by the “very limited access” the Americans have had to Sochi’s competition venue, said Grover—in contrast to the “continuous access” he said has been afforded to the Russian squad.
“They are going to have, from a service perspective, from an athlete preparation perspective, a massive home field advantage,” Grover said. “The good news is that a lot of the other ski nations besides the Russians don’t necessarily have an advantage.”
Johansson will be charged with leading the American team’s support staff.
He started waxing skis after a career as a competitive skijorer, in which he raced with dogs on some of the same courses that the cross-country ski circuit visits in Scandinavia and Central Europe.
In 2006, he began working with the Americans, who were making a concerted effort to strengthen their service team, according to Pete Vordenberg, Grover’s predecessor as head coach — an effort that Vordenberg said included a bigger budget.
“It paid off huge. We went from really bombing some stuff, to pretty rare that they totally screw it up,” Vordenberg said.
Johansson was promoted to head of service last season. In addition to that role, he works personally with Randall — a relationship that predates the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Both say they’ve developed a rapport that helps defuse what can sometimes be a hectic process of picking skis and wax when the clock is ticking — something that should help in Sochi.
“When we go out and ski before a race, even in the highest-stress situations, I have total trust in him,” Randall said. “We just kind of go through our process and get the work done.”
Johansson’s role on the American team has led to a small measure of fame, including spreads in Swedish newspapers and even a line of commercially marketed wax scrapers imprinted with his signature.
Really, though, the job is not that glamorous. Grover declined to say how much the Americans pay their service staff but Johansson said he spends the off-season driving trucks and other equipment in an underground iron mine in northern Sweden.
In Sochi, the U.S. crew will compete against other countries with far larger service budgets and staffs — many of which travel the European racing circuit with semi trucks specially outfitted for ski waxing. (The Americans, by contrast, pack their equipment into a cargo van.)
Grover said the team is taking a different approach in Sochi from the one it took in Vancouver, where the U.S. staff had extensive access to the venue before the Olympics and narrowly tailored the treatments of their skis to the conditions they were expecting. Conditions turned out to be different than expected, Grover said. So in Sochi, the Americans will prepare their skis to work in a broader range of weather.
Randall, a medal contender in Tuesday’s skate sprint, said her familiarity with the U.S. service staff should help take the pressure off.
“We don’t have to pull any magic out of a bag,” she said. “We just continue to operate like we usually do.”
Nathaniel Herz, a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, is a writer for fasterskier.com.