It's so warm in the mountains above Sochi that U.S. Olympic cross country skiers are going sleeveless, hatless and gloveless.
The temperature during Thursday's Winter Olympics racing rose above 50 degrees.
Sadie Bjornsen from Washington's Methow Valley led the U.S. team with an 18th place finish in the women's ten kilometer classic cross country ski event. She made the best of the slushy conditions. "Today was super fun. It was one of those days where you really had to push your mind and your brain," Bjornsen said in a team statement.
Teammate Holly Brooks, who was born and raised in Seattle, came in 35th. Once again, Scandinavians dominated the top ten.
Bjornsen and Brooks' coach, Erik Flora, insists the competitiveness of American cross country skiing is on the rise.
"I think the U.S. skiers are coming in here with every opportunity to stand on the medal podium and ski head-to-head with the Scandinavians," Flora said by phone from Sochi. "We're still kind of building up teams that have the depth of the Scandinavians."
Three-time Olympian Leslie (Thompson) Hall of Mazama, Wash., agrees Team USA is on the upswing. "The Nordic skiers currently are doing way better than we did when I was competing," said Hall, who raced on cross country skis at the 1988, 1992 and 1994 Winter Games. "It will be great to see better results."
Team USA has not won a medal in Olympic cross country skiing since 1976. The best shot to end that medal drought could be this Saturday's women's relay race, in which north-central Washington's Bjornsen will ski a segment.
"It's incredible to watch the growth and strength in our sport and the U.S. team," said Flora. He attributes the improved prospects to a shift to a "decentralized" system of developing elite athletes through regional Nordic clubs.
Besides serving on the U.S. Olympic Cross Country coaching staff, Flora heads the powerhouse Nordic program at Alaska Pacific University. Olympians Sadie Bjornsen, her brother Erik, and Brooks all train with the APU team in Anchorage. The biggest star of the U.S. cross country ski team, Kikkan Randall, also uses APU as her home base.
Sun Valley, Idaho is home to another heralded regional training center and Olympic team feeder. U.S. men's team skiers Simi Hamilton and Noah Hoffman honed their skills with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation Nordic program.
On Thursday, Northwest Olympians were also in action on the luge track and on the ice for short track speedskating. The U.S. men's short track relay team led by J.R. Celski of Federal Way, Wash., had some anxious moments during the 5000-meter relay semifinals. The U.S. skaters finished last in their heat after a crash caused by interference from a rival South Korean racer. Team USA advanced to Sunday's final after a race judge penalized the South Korean short track team.
In the inaugural Olympic team luge competition, three-time Olympian Christian Niccum of Woodinville, Wash., slid across the finish line with doubles luge partner Jayson Terdiman. Team USA finished in sixth place in an event where one male luge racer, one female racer and a doubles pair plummeted down the icy track in quick succession. This probably represented the 36-year-old Niccum's final Olympic run.
Friday's competition schedule sees more action under the sun on the cross country ski course. Former Methow Valley, Wash., neighbors Erik Bjornsen and Brian Gregg are entered in the men's 15 kilometer classic country ski event. Peruvian-American racer Roberto Carcelen of Seattle is also entered in the event. He'll ski for his native Peru.