WHISTLER, British Columbia – Giving a new meaning to “the first shall be last,” Ben Koons completed his first Olympic cross-country ski race Sunday, the final day of the Vancouver Winter Games.

It’s not at all what the Mess-alonskee High and Dartmouth College graduate expected when he qualified to represent his native New Zealand in four events.

The first two races on his itinerary — the 15-kilometer freestyle and individual sprint — were scrapped because his hemoglobin levels tested too high.

On Feb. 20, he started in his best event, the 30K pursuit. However, he became ill during the race and eventually was lapped. Although he was credited with 59th place in the final standings, lapped skiers are not allowed to complete the distance.

Sunday, though, Koons went the distance at Whistler Olympic Park in the 50K mass start race. He finished 46th with a time of 2 hours, 21 minutes, 53.9 seconds.

More than 16 minutes ahead, Norway’s Petter Northug took the gold medal in 2:05:35.5, three-tenths of a second ahead of Germany’s Axel Teichmann. Sweden’s Johan Olsson was another seven-tenths back for the bronze medal.

Already with a gold, silver and bronze coming into the race, Northug finished as the most successful athlete of the Vancouver Games.

James Southam placed 28th for the U.S., and Kris Freeman dropped out near the 15K mark.

Koons, New Zealand’s first male Olympic cross-country skier, had no thoughts of dropping out.

He nodded toward Peter Wardell, chef de mission of the New Zealand delegation, and offered thanks for making him drink more than a few sips of a sports drink every three miles or so.

“Good skiing the last couple laps,” said Koons, who lives in Sidney and trains at the Maine Winter Sports Center. “I had the confidence that I was not going to blow up.”

That confidence was lacking when the race began.

“I went out pretty hesitant. It was my second 50K race. I didn’t want to blow up like I did in the 30K,” Koons said.

“And I continued to fill it out. I was a little wired at the start; 50K’s a long way and you can put yourself under at the start, where you’re suffering through the rest of it.

“I got more confidence as I went through, realized I was skiing strongly and picked it up at the end. Which is kind of the goal in a 50K, to be finishing strong.”

Koons, 23, said he’d love to compete in 2014 at the Sochi Olympics in Russia, but he’s not sure what will happen.

For now, he’ll go to Colorado and train near Aspen.

“I’m just planning on skiing and mountain biking and trying to make some money, pay off some college loans,” he said. “I’m planning on being back in New Zealand in July to get back to training and racing.

“Then, the immediate goals are (the world championships in Oslo) next year, and then we’ll see.

“At the moment, a lot of my ski career depends on funding.”

He plans to return to Maine in May to work on the family farm.

As for his time in Vancouver, “it was definitely a learning experience and at some points a pretty rough experience,” he said. “But I’m really psyched to be done and, in all, I had a pretty good experience.”

He parted with a message for his followers in Maine: “Thanks for all the support. I’ve been getting a ton of e-mails and great responses to my performance here.”


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