There was no time to think, just enough time to act. Most of the 75 cross-country skiers were knotted together in one lane. Already, he could see a large pack distancing itself, and their opportunity lessening.
He pushed his right ski pole toward his teammate.
"Which pole do you need?" he yelled. They weren't even through the first mile into the race.
His teammate was confused. "Dude, what are you doing?!"
He saw his teammate needed the right pole. He yelled at him again.
"Go! Go! Ray, just stick with the group!"
It was the good ol' give-and-go, but it's not a play we see in sports very often.
The goer was Ray Sabo. The giver, Einar Often. They are skiers for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks who entered last month's regional championships with the same dream and the same problem -- both desperately wanted to make the NCAAs, but both were stuck on the bubble. If this were Bracketology, Sabo and Often would be Maryland and Florida.Sabo's chances appeared finished when another skier's knee collided with his pole and broke it on the first hill at Giants Ridge, a ski resort 3.5 hours from Minneapolis. Only the top 10 skiers at regionals qualify for the NCAA championships.
"I was looking around for the coaches," Sabo said, "and then Einar yelled to me."
Skiers, of course, break poles all the time during races. Usually a spare comes from a coach. Rarely does it come from a teammate, and certainly not from another skier in the race. But sportsmanship ruled the day. And after Often offered his ski to Sabo, Sabo skied one of the best races of his young collegiate career. He finished eighth and qualified for the NCAA championships, which begin Wednesday in Bozeman, Mont.
Often, on the other hand, finished 23rd after borrowing a pole from an opposing coach. He'll be a cheerleader when the squad competes at Bohart Ranch.
Often admits he wasn't skiing well that day, which made the decision to take himself out of contention an easy one. "I felt OK," he said. "I felt, early in the race, my skis weren't that fast. My chances were there, but they weren't as big."
And an important team goal was at stake. Each school can receive a maximum of 12 NCAA berths. Alaska-Fairbanks only has a Nordic skiing program, so a full NCAA squad for them is six players, three of each gender.
"It just seemed rational to give him the pole so we would have a better chance of getting three guys into the NCAAs," Often said.
Thanks to the Sabo-Often exchange, for the second straight year and the third time in school history, a full squad of Nanooks will compete in the NCAA championships. It's a noteworthy accomplishment, especially since Alaska-Fairbanks is one of only six schools to qualify a full squad of Nordic skiers.
"I'm still in awe of what kind of person [Often] is," Sabo said. "He's definitely a true sportsman."
This has happened before, at the Olympic level. At the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy, Norwegian coach Bjorner Hakensmoen gave his ski pole to Canadian skier Sara Renner when the Canadians were heavily favored to win. Coincidentally, Often also is a Norwegian.
Eight years ago at the U.S. Olympic tae kwon do trials in Colorado Springs, Colo., Esther Kim gave up her spot at the Sydney Olympics so her teammate, Kay Poe, could take her place. Poe dislocated her kneecap, and Kim forfeited their match because she refused to compete against an injured player.
But in that case, it made sense because Poe and Kim were best friends. Often and Sabo are not. The sophomores share the natural bond of teammates who travel and train together, but this isn't exactly some sappy tale of ski brothers looking out for one another. This was done because it was the right thing to do. And that's almost impossible to fathom in an age when it seems more likely we'll see an athlete appear before Congress than do something selfless.
"It's a situation you meet once in a lifetime," Often said. "When that accident happened, everything pointed to that I should give him the pole."
Kind of puts what Kurt Busch did for Ryan Newman at the Daytona 500 this year in perspective, too.
But let's not downplay Sabo's role strictly because he was the beneficiary. Often's act shines so brightly because Sabo achieved something with it. And this was a big step for Sabo, who, according to his coach, hasn't always operated well under pressure. "Last year, when Ray would race, he would do fine in small races," Alaska-Fairbanks coach Scott Jerome said. "As soon as it was a race where the outcome was important, he would melt mentally. He would lock up. He would get so worked up mentally that physically he became tight."
If Sabo botched the exchange with Often, or was delayed a second or two longer, he'd be cheering alongside Often and certainly wouldn't have the chance to attain All-American status, which is given to skiers who finish in the top 10 at the NCAAs.
"I want to go out there and race hard," Sabo said. "The biggest thing is not to put pressure on myself."
So if given the opportunity again, would Often make the same choice he did that day at Giants Ridge? Would he sacrifice his dreams to see a teammate accomplish his own?
"Uh, I don't know," Often said. "It's just one of those decisions you have to make in a tenth of a second."
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.