WHISTLER, British Columbia — Near the end of the men's team sprint, right in the thick of a fight for an Olympic medal, cross-country skier Torin Koos experienced what every racer dreads — an empty tank.
Koos was in the lead pack of skiers on the final uphill of the fifth of six 1.6-kilometer loops, with teammate Andy Newell waiting for his tag in the transition area. Newell's loop would be the final one.
An Olympic medal, the U.S. cross-country team's first since 1976, and only second ever, hung in the balance.
Germany's Tim Tscharnke burst from the pack in a startling move, opening up 15 yards on the pack. Koos, 29, couldn't respond, and Newell had too much ground to make up on the final lap at Whistler Olympic Park Monday afternoon.
"I just was put on the Pain Train," said Koos. "Mind wanted to go, but the body was just like, (I couldn't) give it full effort."
The U.S. men's team finished ninth of 10 teams with a time of 19 minutes, 21.1 seconds, 20.6 seconds behind winner Norway, in what was considered its best chance to medal at these Games. Koos was part of a U.S. team that was 11th in the team sprint at last year's world championships.
"It's an improvement for sure considering the way the Games have been going for us," Newell said. "So this is a big step forward."
The U.S. men's team in an event that debuted in the 2006 Olympics in Turin, when the men failed to qualify for the finals.
Likewise, the women's sprint team notched their best result — sixth out of 10 teams. In 2006, the women made the finals but finished last.
On Monday, the U.S. team of Kikkan Randall and Caitlin Compton finished 47.9 seconds behind Olympic gold-medalist Germany, which posted a time of 18:03.7 seconds over the 8.4-kilometer course.
Compton got caught on the edge of an early pileup that put the women behind. Randall skied a blistering final loop to move the U.S. from eighth.
In the sprint relay, each skier sprints three short loops on a course, alternating with a teammate.
Both U.S. teams qualified for the final with solid performances in the semifinal round.
Germany won two medals at the event, taking silver in the men's race ahead of Russia. In the women's event, Sweden took silver and Russia bronze. With silver, Germany's 20-year-old Tscharnke became the youngest male cross-country medalist in Olympic history.
Koos, and Newell made it suspenseful right until the end.
"We both hung in there up until the last lap," Newell said. "That's all you can do. We gave it our best shot."
A cold, hard snowpack benefitted the Americans early, but they slowed when the snow got softer as afternoon temperatures pushed 52 degrees.
"This is as hot as anything I can remember," Koos said.
While Koos hit the wall, Newell had his own problems, pushing so hard he was throwing up between semifinal laps and for a half-hour after. He said he recovered fully for the final.
"I would love to say that we just won the first medal since 1976, I'd like to say we were right there playing for the gold," said Koos, who is optimistic he'll ski the 50-kilometer event on Sunday, the final day of the Games.
"But it's the closest we've ever been in my era of skiing, last 10 years. So yeah, it's close."