'Zak! Zak! Zak!': Ketterson returns to Wirth Park for World Cup

Bloomington's Zak Ketterson grew up skiing the paths at Theodore Wirth Regional Park. Much of the time, he felt like the only one there. On Saturday, Ketterson raced to a different tune, as the silence he'd come to get used to was drowned out by the roars of local fans and chants of his name.

For the first time in more than 20 years, the FIS Cross Country World Cup made a stop in the United States. In addition to hosting the world's top skiers, Wirth Park welcomed just under 20,000 spectators who lined the course at nearly every bend of the 1,304 meters, offering cheers and applause to the athletes as they raced toward the finish.

Flags of several countries flew. Cowbells rang. Fans raised signs and wore shirts with their favorite skiers' faces on them. A man even climbed into a tree high above the start-finish area to get a better view of the action. Ketterson, along with the other American racers, was blown away by just how many people came out to watch the 43rd iteration of the World Cup and support their hometown athletes.

"I would say it exceeded any expectations I could ever have," Ketterson said. "It was the loudest, the most well attended, and we go to races like Holmenkollen, for example, where there's a lot of fans, but they're never cheering for you like here. Hearing 'Zak! Zak! Zak!' and then when they announced that I was from Bloomington and the crowd was just yelling, I mean, that's why you ski."

Ketterson reached the quarterfinals of the sprint freestyle event Saturday before falling just 1.23 seconds short of qualifying for the semifinals. He was one of four American men to advance past the qualifying round and placed 21st overall.

Norway's Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo made his move at the final turn and edged Federico Pellegrino of Italy by 0.27 seconds in the men's sprint final. Klaebo, a two-time Olympic champion and three-time world champion in individual sprint events, has won the past four sprint races on the World Cup circuit. Haavard Solaas Taugboel of Norway was third.

Even though no Americans, men or women, made it to the podium, the day was still quite successful for Ketterson and his teammates. On top of putting on a spectacle in front of an energetic and enthusiastic crowd, they were able to showcase Minneapolis to their competitors as a hot spot for cross-country skiing fandom and make a case for the World Cup to return in future years. It all came together like something out of a storybook, with a Wednesday snowstorm providing what Ketterson called beautiful conditions that made the event unforgettable.

"I was talking to a reporter a few weeks ago about how bad the snow was, and then we got this miracle 6 inches of snow that made it just amazing," Ketterson said. "It's been so fun hearing the Europeans just rave about how awesome it is. And being from here, it's one of the proudest things I've ever experienced."

Other Minnesotans

In addition to Afton's Jessie Diggins, who finished fourth, four other Minnesotan women competed Saturday, although none of them advanced out of the qualification round. Ely's Erin Bianco finished 37th, just over three seconds away from a top 30 spot that would've sent her to the quarterfinals. Alayna Sonnesyn of Plymouth wasn't far behind her, placing 44th. Renae Anderson (Golden Valley) and Margie Freed (Apple Valley) rounded out the group at 48th and 50th place out of 61 women in the event.