Proctor-Hermantown's Olson wins Section 7 Nordic ski meet

BIWABIK -- As the skiers made the final turn toward the finish line at the Section 7 Nordic ski meet at Giants Ridge, a shadowy figure emerged from the woods leading the pack, a true dark horse."Who the heck is that?" one observer remarked.Indeed...

Proctor-Hermantown’s Sam Olson double poles as he nears the finish line for the Section 7 Nordic boys pursuit race/classic division race at Giants Ridge in Biwabik on Thursday. Olson finished the race in first place. He also finished first for the meet, having a combined time of 30:15.3 for the meet’s two races. (Steve Kuchera /

BIWABIK - As the skiers made the final turn toward the finish line at the Section 7 Nordic ski meet at Giants Ridge, a shadowy figure emerged from the woods leading the pack, a true dark horse.
“Who the heck is that?” one observer remarked.
Indeed, most casual observers didn’t know Proctor-Hermantown senior Sam Olson was a contender before Thursday, but they do now after Olson surged to victory in the boys classic pursuit.
Olson, who started the final in fifth, 15 seconds behind pacesetter Spencer Krog of Mesabi East Area, rallied to edge Ely senior Seth Prigge by 2.7 seconds at the finish. Olson had a combined time of 30 minutes, 15.3 seconds, for the 5.2-kilometer freestyle and 5.3K classic.
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton junior Anja Maijala dominated the girls race in 33:08.2, while Ely swept both the boys and girls team titles for the first time since 2010. Duluth East also qualified both its teams with runner-up finishes.
Olson, holding his arms up in triumph and exclaiming, “Yes! Yes,” had never finished in the top five before Thursday.
“I still can’t believe it,” Olson said, clearly elated. “That would have to be a perfect race, and the perfect way to end my senior year.”
Olson isn’t done quite yet, with the state meet back at Giants Ridge next week.
Next week will be Olson’s third straight trip to the state meet. His highest finish was the 20th he recorded last year, but after Thursday, he is eyeing top five. Talk about a confidence boost.
“I had a dream,” Olson said. “I hoped, and it became a reality.”
Krog was the top qualifier after a strong morning freestyle race, but the field was tight for the second and final event of the day, the classic pursuit. Five skiers were within 15 seconds of the lead, and 15 skiers were within a minute.
Olson attacked the climbing portion that defines the first 2.5K of the course.
“It’s fun coming back in,” Olson said. “When you see them and know you can catch them, it’s even better. The adrenaline just spikes.”
At the top of the hill, Prigge and Ely teammate Cole Helms were still in front, but the 6-foot, 175-pound Olson quickly passed Helms on the downhill, where his additional weight is considered an advantage, and reeled in Prigge by the 4K mark.
“My specialty used to be freestyle. It’s more likely classic now,” Olson said, laughing.
Prigge wasn’t complaining with second. He will make his fifth straight state appearance next week and is hoping for a top-10 finish as Section 7 is regarded as one of the toughest in the state.
While some were surprised by Olson’s performance, including himself, Prigge wasn’t.
“I’ve always known Sam has been good,” Prigge said. “He’s been around a long time. He’s a good kid and good skier. He just finally had a good day, and I’m really happy for him. He worked hard for it.”
Prigge is leaning toward skiing at Michigan Tech, while Olson, a devout Christian who is homeschooled, plans on attending Lake Superior College and becoming a physical therapy assistant. He wants to continue racing, and after Thursday, who can blame him?
“God was the only one who made this possible,” Olson said. “Without him, I’m nothing.”
The last time Ely swept the Section 7 team titles in 2010 the Timberwolves boys won state and the girls took third. Ely has an enrollment of 139 students grades ninth through 12th, small enough to qualify for nine-man football, but here the Timberwolves are contending for state titles in single-class skiing.
“We like to show those big cities how it’s done,” Prigge said. “Up North, this is part of life.”
Maijala built big early lead
Shortly after winning the girls pursuit title, Maijala spoke with her father via cell phone. Arne Maijala, a teacher, couldn’t make Thursday’s races because of his school commitments but you can bet he won’t miss next week for the world.
The way Anja Maijala raced Thursday, she might win the whole thing.
Maijala had a 35-second cushion over Ely’s Ryne Prigge after a strong morning freestyle, but it didn’t exactly start that way.
“I was really, really, really nervous for that first race,” Maijala said. “I was at the start, and my sunglasses broke. I was just adjusting them and they cracked. I was like, ‘This is a sign. It’s going to be a bad day.’ ”
Maijala rebounded nicely and her strong freestyle performance helped her relax for the afternoon. She said she was as calm as she has ever been for a race.
Maijala expanded on her lead in the pursuit and wound up beating runner-up Anna Johnson of Mesabi East Area by 40 seconds.
Johnson, who started the pursuit fourth, 41 seconds back, had the best classic time on the day, by a second over Maijala, but that wasn’t nearly enough to make up the gap. Johnson worked with Ely’s Erin Bianco to move up.
“Erin and I talked before the race and said we were going to stick together to get through it,” Johnson said. “We pushed each other. It was really cool. We didn’t care who beat the other. We just wanted to have fun and go for it.”
Maijala, who had the Northland’s best finish at state last year when she placed sixth, had some catching up to do after a family trip to Hawaii over the holiday break. She certainly appears to be back.
“I’m finally caught up,” Maijala said, laughing. “It only took two months!”

Cloquet-Esko-Carlton’s Anja Maijala skis in the Section 7 Nordic girls meet at Giants Ridge on Thursday. (Steve Kuchera /

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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