FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.
VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – Norway’s women’s relay with Heidi Weng, Therese Johaug, Kristin Størmer Steira and Marit Bjørgen didn’t have much wiggle room results-wise Thursday at the 2013 Nordic World Ski Championships.
Thousands of Norwegian fans throughout the stadium and along the 2.5-kilometer course at Lago di Tesero had come to watch the 4 x 5 k relay with high expectations. Their team was going to win, it was just a question of by how much.
Bjørgen dismissed the idea that the victory was certain, but after anchoring Norway to a 36-second win at 2011 World Championships and helping them capture Olympic gold in 2010, it was hard to imagine anyone could beat them.
Sweden held out hope, but women’s coach Rickard Grip knew everything had to go seamlessly between Ida Ingemarsdotter, Emma Wiken, Anna Haag and Charlotte Kalla to do so. It went pretty well, but they still finished second, 26.2 seconds off Norway’s winning time of 1:00.36.5.
“Norway is just outstanding,” he told NRK.
Their youngest member, 21-year-old Weng set out as the scramble leg with a definite agenda. Positioned in third behind Finland’s Anne Kyllönen and Ingemarsdotter up the first hill, she shot to the front on the second climb. No one else in the 16-team pack thought to ski outside the track for the most direct line to the top, but Weng did and took the lead.
Ingemarsdotter and Estonia’s Triin Ojaste pulled her back to third before the end of the first lap, but at the start of the second, Weng attacked again up the first climb, this time dropping the field.
She tagged Johaug in first, 9.3 seconds ahead of France’s Aurore Jean, and Johaug widened the gap over Russian Alija Iksanova and Celia Aymonier of France. Within a kilometer, Johaug had built more than a 30-second cushion – a lot, but apparently not enough to hold off Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk.
The best individual performer of the day, Kowalczyk rose from starting 10th, nearly 37 seconds behind Johaug, to first at the end of the second classic leg. She caught Norway’s 10 k freestyle world champion, who was struggling with her kick, on the last hill and passed Johaug at the top. At the exchange, Kowalczyk sent teammate Paulina Maciuszek out with a 0.8-second lead, giving Steira someone to chase.
“I was actually kind of glad,” Steira said at a post-race press conference. “I didn’t have to go out by myself, so that was good.”
For Kowalczyk, it was more of a test than anything after failing to reach the World Championships podium in the last week. Poland ended up ninth in the relay, 3:35 minutes behind Norway.
“I am very tired now; it was a tough race,” Kowalczyk told Dagbladet. She skipped Tuesday’s 10 k to rest up for her main focus on Saturday, the 30 k classic mass start.
“The form is the same as the previous week,” she added. “I’ve been good in the classic this season.”
On the first skate lap, Steira skied away from Maciuszek within a kilometer and was more than 30 seconds ahead at the halfway point. Heading out on the second skate lap, Riita-Liisa Roponen of Finland and Sweden’s Haag overtook Maciuszek, duking it out in second and third.
Skiing alone to the exchange, Steira came through 25.6 seconds ahead of Sweden, and Bjørgen set out for the final 5 k. With just over a kilometer remaining, the seasoned world champion had 34 seconds to play with.
“I think I heard something about 20 [seconds] and I thought, ‘Oh that’s not much!’ ” Bjørgen said of her splits on the last lap. “When we were in the stadium again, I was up again around 27 seconds and then I knew that maybe she opened hard.”
At that moment, Bjørgen knew she was safe and skied toward the grandstand to grab a Norwegian flag. Hoisting it above her head, the 32-year-old smiled broadly as she crossed the finish, giving Norway its second-straight World Championships relay title and her 18th medal at worlds. In four starts at this year’s World Championships, it was Bjørgen’s third gold and fourth medal after placing second to Johaug on Tuesday.
Bjørgen’s win record rivals that of 47-year-old retired Russian skier Larissa Lasutina, who has 11 World Championships titles and five Olympic golds (and was stripped of three more medals – a gold and two silvers in the 2002 Olympics). Bjørgen collected her 11th gold at World Championships on Wednesday and has three Olympic titles.
“I don’t focus on how many medals I have,” Bjørgen said. “I live in the now and have new goals in the future. I think when I stop skiing then I can think about how many medals I have.”
At the moment, she and her team focused on celebrating their relay victory and Weng’s commanding rookie performance.
“I was so nervous that I was shaking in my legs,” Weng told NRK, according to a translation.
Norway’s women’s coach, Egil Kristiansen, knew she had it in her.
“She’s tough in her head and wants to try to do special things,” he said to NRK. “She’s a little shy. If you say boo, so she gushes. At the same time she is very focused on what she should do.”
Sweden relished in its third-consecutive relay podium at World Championships, with silvers in the last two and a bronze in 2009 in Liberec, Czech Republic.
“It was a hard fight with the Finns in the first legs, but both in Emma and Anna did very good races today,” Kalla said at a press conference.
After Haag tagged her in second, nearly 20 seconds ahead of Finland’s Roponen, Kalla tried to chase down Bjørgen. Meanwhile, Finland’s anchor, Riika Sarasoja-Lilja, fell out of contention on her second lap.
Tagged in fifth, Russia’s Yulia Tchekaleva chased down American Jessie Diggins in fourth, catching her toward the end of the first lap. Tchekaleva then passed Sarasoja-Lilja midway through the second loop, and Diggins overtook her as well on the final hill.
Russia ended up third (+45.8) for Tchekaleva’s second bronze of the week after the 10 k, and Diggins lifted the U.S. to its best World Championships relay finish in fourth (+1:12.4). Finland was fifth (+1:23.8), missing the podium for the first time in a World Championship or Olympic event since 2006.
“I was unable to meet the expectations of what our team had,” Sarasoja-Lilja told Iltalehti.fi, explaining that she had nothing left in her legs after the first lap. “When Russia came, I was not able to respond.”
Also feeling the 5 k grind in soft conditions on a damp, 8-degree Celsius afternoon, Tchekaleva said she caught a second wind.
“After I ended the first lap and then I started the second, I felt very tired,” she said through a translator. “But when I saw the back of the Finnish girl, I was inspired.”
Asked how her second-career world medal compared to Tuesday’s individual bronze, Tchekaleva said, “After today’s race, I feel much more emotions, more happiness, more everything because we didn’t expect it until the last moment.”
At the finish, all eyes were on Norway as its four women lined up with jackets with huge white letters. “G-R-O-N,” they spelled out. No, that wasn’t right.
“It was not very well planned this with letters,” Kristiansen told NRK with a laugh. “It is mirrored in fact.”
The figured it out and rearranged themselves for photographers. “N-O-R-G.” Norway, minus the ‘e’. Perfect.
Of note: Just 2.5 k into the first leg, Finland and Germany had a bit of a tussle in the stadium when Kyllönen “came into a place where there was no room for two athletes,” technical delegate Jussi Prykäri told the Helsingin Sanomat.
Their skis made contact, and Germany’s Nicole Fessel pushed Kyllönen “off the track.” Both received warnings. Finland’s coach Magnar Dalen disputed the penalty after the race, but to no avail.