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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Wouldn’t it have been fun to be a fly on the wall, or on the headband of one of the three Norwegian women leading the Olympic 30-kilometer freestyle mass start on Saturday?
The dialogue between Marit Bjørgen, Therese Johaug and Kristin Størmer Steira throughout the three-lap race must’ve been interesting. Who called the shots? Who decided when to lead when? Who directed the charge?
Then again, it sounded like it was fairly straightforward and a matter of executing a plan that didn’t really need verbal cues. With the three skiing alone for the last 20 k of the race, it was basically like a long training session. If anything, the chatter was probably conversational.
After Johaug led early out of the start, the Norwegians’ defining break came at the end of the first 10 k loop. They had already put some time into the women behind them up the unrelenting 2.5 k climb back to the stadium. There, they stuck with their team plan and skipped the first of two possible ski changes. Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla in fourth followed Johaug, Steira and Bjørgen, respectively, just under 5 seconds back.
A full lap later, Kalla was down to 31st, two and a half minutes back behind Bjørgen. No one else was close to the Norwegian trio; Eva Vrabcova-Nyvltova of the Czech Republic led the chase 50 seconds back.
“We have a plan to go as a team the first 20 [kilometers] and after that they have to go for each other,” Norwegian women’s coach Egil Kristiansen said afterward.
According to Johaug and Steira, they had also been instructed to change skis before the final 10 k. They made the executive decision not to, fearing what some 30 seconds in the transition area would cost them.
“Me and Therese decided not to change skis; I think Marit was a bit more insecure,” Steira said in a press conference. “She was in the stadium looking around and she was thinking, if I do the ski change then the other two won’t. We talked about it and got some messages from coaches around 15, 17 k and they told us to change the skis and we were like, ‘No, no we’re not doing it!’ ”
Bjørgen, the well-established queen of cross-country skiing, went with the consensus. Unlike teams like the U.S., which switched to fresh skis at both 10 and 20 k, the Norwegians wore the same pair from start to finish.
The plan worked as they finished nearly a minute ahead of anyone else, with Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen closing hard at the front of the 11-person chase pack and edging Vrabcova-Nyvletova by 0.2 seconds for fourth.
Aside from who would win the race for fourth, the top story of the day materialized in the last few hundred meters of the final climb. Johaug led up the long hill from the lowest point of the course a few kilometers before the finish. Bjørgen sat in second and Steira started to waver in third, allowing some daylight between her and the other two for the first time in the entire race.
Up to that point, the three had generally skied single file on the tails of one another, taking feeds simultaneously and even chatting when the terrain allowed.
Now, Johaug was starting to push. The sense was that Bjørgen would make a move; where was the question.
The 33-year-old Bjørgen, who had already notched two Olympic golds in Sochi, charged over the top of the steep hill before the finish, passing Johaug and immediately gapping her on the downhill.
Johaug, 25, chased her down into the finishing lanes, which ended with a horseshoe-shaped loop and false flat that was actually slightly uphill. Bjørgen took the victory by 2.6 seconds over Johaug with a winning time of 1:11.05.2. Steira finished 23.6 seconds after Bjørgen for bronze, her first individual Olympic medal.
“I’ve tried so many times and I finally succeeded,” Steira, 32, told reporters. “It’s amazing. … It’s been a lot of hard work, but also a lot of fun. [I was] smiling all the way, but when I crossed the finish line, I felt emotional.”
It was Norway’s first Winter Olympics medal sweep since 1994, and 12th overall in the history of the Games.
For Bjørgen, the gold was her sixth, adding to her total Olympic haul of 10 medals, which made her the most successful woman in Winter Olympics history. She equaled the total gold medals won by former Russian speed skater Lidia Skoblikova and former cross-country skier Lyubov Ivanovna Yegorova, also from Russia, and tied former nordic skiers Stefania Belmondo of Italy and Russia’s Raisa Smetanina for 10 Olympic medals.
But her ratio of six golds, three silvers and one bronze beats them all.
“I am not thinking about how many medals I have,” Bjørgen said in a press conference. “This year, for sure this 30 k has been motivation for me. I am really happy … with my teammates also … it’s very good for our teammates. I think when I’m finished skiing I can think about how many medals I have.”
While she plans to compete through the 2015 World Championships in Falun, Sweden, Bjørgen said this Olympics will likely be her last.
“I think in four years is a long time, and I’m not getting younger,” she said. “I’m also thinking to have a family. I was also thinking to compete in Falun and we’ll see after that. … It’s hard to sit here and say what I will do in four years.”
Johaug notched her best individual finish at the Olympics and second medal at these Games (after bronze in the 10 k classic). Four years ago, she and the Norwegian women’s team won gold in the 4 x 5 k relay. This year they placed fifth behind Sweden, Finland, Germany, and France, respectively.
“We knew we were stronger than that,” Johaug told reporters.
As for her own race, Johaug knew an attack was coming from Bjørgen, who’s typically stronger than her on the flats. While Johaug’s strength is climbing, she said her legs seized a bit on the last hill.
“I know that Marit is really strong in the last hill and she had a lot of power,” Johaug said. “I tried to do my best, but she was better than me today. … I’m really happy with my second place, but what I’m most happy for is we are three girls in the top three. It’s a big day for my team and for Norway.”
It was also the final women’s cross-country race of the Olympics, and it left Bjørgen with as many golds as she accumulated in Vancouver. At those 2010 Games, she was second in the 30 k classic and won gold in the classic sprint, 15 k skiathlon, and relay. This year, she defended her skiathlon title, then went on to win the team sprint with Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, and finally the 30 k.
“It’s incredible,” she said. “This has been a goal for me for a long time.”
Despite skiing in eighth through 12.5 k, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk pulled out of the race after someone apparently accidentally kicked her broken foot.
“Immediately after starting I got a minor collision with another skier,” the 10 k classic Olympic champion, Kowalczyk told Poland’s TVP, according to a translation. She had received injections in her foot before her races in Sochi to numb the pain. But on Saturday, someone’s ski hit her in a part of it that wasn’t numb.
“Eventually I got so much pain that I could not continue,” she said.
While Kowalczyk has declined to elaborate on when she plans to retire, she’s said this is her last Olympics.
“I am very upset,” she told TVP. “It was not how I wanted my Olympic career to end.”
Germany’s Nicole Fessel and Bulgaria’s Teodora Malcheva also did not finish.
As for Kalla, who ended up 34th, her Swedish teammate said the result was not unexpected after she had been “lying in bed” sick for the last few days, according to EuroSport. Aftonbladet reported that she had a cold.
Finnish head coach Magnar Dalen said his team was “very happy” with fourth.
“Norway had a very strong team with four skiers, and one of them had a bad day and three had a good day, so then the medals was gone,” he said, referring to Norway’s fourth woman Heidi Weng in 19th. “Then we was winning the league number 2, so we’re happy about that.”
“That is not an abnormal … high altitude, hard track, skating race,” he said of the Norwegian sweep. “It was just sad that Charlotte Kalla had been sick and was not able to fight with them.”
“It’s nice to see them skiing, helping each other, working as a team and building up the distance to the others,” Swiss head coach Guri Hetland said. “It’s impressive, and it’s impressive what Marit does. I think it’s her 18th gold medal in championships or Olympics. So that’s amazing. For them, it’s normal. They are training together, they are pushing it, and that’s also the reason why they are so strong.”
Østberg said her teammates have been “really focused since the relay, trying not to think about the skis.” Ultimately the Norwegian team went out on a high note, along with its waxing staff.
“At some point [we knew] they would figure out what to do with the skis,” Østberg said.
– Nat Herz and Chelsea Little contributed reporting