Turns out the struggles worked in the Swedish cross-country skier's favour. Olsson took advantage of an early start number — determined by his low World Cup ranking — to win the men's 15-kilometre freestyle race Wednesday for his second world title.
While Olsson said he put together "perhaps the best skating race of my life," he also benefited from his bib number as warm temperatures softened the snow and made things harder on the later starters.
"I knew that my starting number at 17 would be an advantage in these kinds of conditions," Olsson said. "So I tried to make a really fast first lap to rely on that."
It worked perfectly as no one could match Olsson's speed on the second lap on the 7.5K course. Olsson, who also won the 50K classical race at the 2013 worlds, finished in 35 minutes, 1.6 seconds to beat Maurice Manificat of France by 17.8 seconds. Anders Gloeersen of Norway took bronze, 1.4 seconds behind Manificat.
The 34-year-old Olsson also helped Sweden win the relay gold at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, but has often struggled with illnesses that have disrupted his seasons. After the Sochi Games, where he took silver in the 15K race, he decided to come back for one more season for the chance of competing at the home worlds.
But when he was ill for all of December, he wasn't sure he'd even make it to Falun. In January, he decided to isolate himself from his family and friends as he focused on getting healthy and fit for what he hoped would be a career-defining moment.
"From New Year, I don't think anyone has put in as much effort as I have. I haven't seen my kids for seven weeks," Olsson said. "That's quite stressful to have two small kids back home and not being able to see them. Every now and then you think, 'Is this really worth it to be away from your kids?' On these kinds of days, of course, my wife and I are convinced that it is worth it."
Manificat was one of the few late starters who were able to challenge the Swede and held a slim lead at the halfway mark, before tiring on the second lap. However, he had enough energy to sprint to the finish and narrowly beat Gloeersen's time to secure the silver.
"I like this soft snow and it was no problem," the Frenchman said. "I felt that it was worse (on the second lap), but it was OK. It was more difficult physically."
Defending champion Petter Northug of Norway, with bib No. 65, was nearly 50 seconds back at the 7.5K mark and then cruised the rest of the way, finishing 4:44 behind Olsson in 62nd place.
Ivan Babikov of Canmore, Alta., was the top Canadian in 20th.
Olympic champion Dario Cologna of Switzerland, who went out last among the seeded skiers with bib No. 71, also lost more than a minute on the second lap, finishing 18th.
Thursday's program at the Nordic skiing worlds includes the women's cross-country relay, the men's large hill ski jump event and the Nordic combined large hill competition.