PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—One hundred and nineteen skiers took off at 30-second intervals in the 15km cross-country ski race at the 2018 Olympics today. Three didn’t finish or were disqualified. Of the 116 athletes who successfully skied the course, 115 of them were faster than German Madrazo, the 43-year-old lone cross-country skier in Mexico’s four-person Olympics delegation this year.
From the starting line in the center of the arena, the competitors skied up and out of the stadium and into a wooded section of the mountain—only to be seen by assembled fans during periodic check-ins on the jumbotron. They didn’t reappear in person until final moments of the race brought them back down for a lap in front of the crowd. The first to cross the finish line was the two-time reigning gold medalist Dario Cologna of Switzerland, whose 33:43.9 time put him a full 18 seconds faster than even the silver medalist. Twenty-three minutes later, Pita Taufatofua—the dual Olympian of shirtless Opening Ceremony fame—fulfilled his dream of finishing before they turned the lights off and not hitting a tree. Another two minutes after that, with a final time of 59:35.4, Madrazo brought the entire event to a close—but not before making a detour to grab a Mexican flag:
A cadre of fellow athletes representing warm weather countries—Taufatofua, who trained with Madrazo, as well as Sebastian Uprimny of Colombia, Samir Azzimani of Morocco, and Kequyen Lam of Portugal—were waiting to hoist Madrazo onto their shoulders in a gesture of triumph.
The moment was a little silly, sure, but it offered a view of what the Olympics can mean to the hundreds of athletes that arrive knowing they will never sniff the podium. The Olympics are a massive event and it’s easy for the various competitions to blur together until it’s hard to recall even the feats of the medal winners. As for the large percentage of athletes who never had any shot at a all, many of them world-class athletes themselves, few people even knew their names to begin with.
But in those moments after Madrazo crossed the finish line, he was the star of the show. Cologna, nearly 26 minutes removed from his gold-medal finish, came back to the finish line to to congratulate the last-place finisher. What started as a packed house full of rowdy Scandinavians had dwindled in the intervening half an hour, but the remaining fans whooped and hollered for Madrazo down the stretch and into his celebration. Later, shivering in the setting sun but still grinning giddily, he talked about hearing those cheers:
The guys who play in the finals for the World Cup, when they go into the stadium with that roar—I think it’s the same thing only this was way better. Cause there’s 22 of them for the roar and this one is only yours.
Madrazo was an ironman triathlete living in Texas when someone sent him an article that claimed cross-country skiing was the most difficult single-day sport. “I said, well if this is the hardest sport than I want to try it, right? Cause that’s what I like, I like challenges.” But his wife had just given birth to triplets at the time and it would be another few years before Madrazo was able to take up skiing. At an ironman competition in Canada in 2016, he saw the Olympic rings and was reminded of his dream. “So I came back home and said, ‘let’s do it, time to cross-country ski.’”
Less than two years later—with his wife in attendance but the babies back home because triplets are a handful to take around the world—Madrazo celebrated being the worst of the best when it comes to skiing 15 kilometers.
“It was hard, but we did it,” he said.