It wouldn’t quite be accurate to call Marit Bjørgen’s World Cup Finals pursuit performance on Sunday a formality. Sure, Norway’s 12-time World Champion started the 10-kilometer freestyle race a full minute and 20 seconds ahead of the field in Falun, Sweden, with teammate Therese Johaug being the only one that could potentially test her.
And yes, chances were Johaug would never catch her, but there’s always several races within a race, and Bjørgen had one going from the start.
Sixth in the World Cup standings after missing more than a month of racing in December (Bjørgen sat out the Canadian World Cups to rest up for the Tour de Ski, then skipped the Tour because of a heart arrhythmia), the 33-year-old had the opportunity to capture 200 World Cup points on Sunday and rise to at least fourth overall.
If American Kikkan Randall – the World Cup sprint champion – placed outside the top 15, Bjørgen could finish third in the overall standings. But Randall, too, was out to finish strong.
Bjørgen did have several things going for her. Without Poland’s Justyna Kowalcyzk challenging her from what would’ve been a 46-second starting deficit (Kowalczyk skipped the last race of the season), Bjørgen enjoyed somewhat of a solo journey throughout the three-lap race to seal her 59th World Cup victory. Able to pick her head up, she soaked in the thousands of spectators lining the course.
“I was in control,” she told NRK, according to a translation. “When one goes all alone in front, [it’s] not too full.”
Meanwhile, Johaug charged from behind to fend off Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, who started just 6 seconds behind her.
With one lap remaining, Johaug was within 55 seconds of Bjørgen, but unless something dramatic happened – like a crash – Bjørgen was going to bring this one home. She finished first in 26:39.6, 49.3 seconds ahead of Johaug, who topped Kalla by 22.4 seconds.
“I had a lot of time to enjoy the track and the people around the track,” Bjørgen told FIS. “It’s been a great season for me and to finish like this … I’m looking forward to some vacation and to a new season and Sochi. I’m really happy.”
Repeating her bronze from last year’s World Cup Finals, Kalla finished 1:11.7 out of first for her first World Cup podium (outside of a stage top-three) this season. She was second to Bjørgen in Friday’s 2.5 k freestyle prologue.
“It feels great to be on the podium again,” Kalla said. “I tried to keep the pace with Therese but she was too fast.”
On Sunday, the Swede initially responded to Johaug’s pace, coming within eight seconds of her 2.3 kilometers in. But by the second lap, the gap between Johaug and Kalla had grown to 11 seconds. The third time around, Kalla’s technique began to falter, yet she managed to keep it together for the final two kilometers.
Kalla finished 40.1 seconds ahead of Heidi Weng, who for the second-straight race outlunged a competitor to the finish. A day after placing third in the 10 k classic mass start ahead of Kowalczyk and behind Bjørgen and Johaug, respectively, Weng placed fourth (+1:51.8), 0.3 seconds ahead of Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen.
Norway’s fourth woman, Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen took sixth (+2:09.3), and Randall outsprinted Finland’s Anne Kyllönen and Krista Lahteenmaki for seventh (+2:29.3) after starting 15th.
With the second-fastest time after Johaug, Randall held onto third in the overall World Cup to become the first American woman to finish the season in the top three.
Bjørgen finished fourth, behind Crystal Globe winner Kowalczyk and runner-up Johaug. But that respectable finish – and 24 consecutive podiums in as many races – weren’t what Bjørgen would remember most about this season: World Championships were.
“Four gold and one silver is more than I hoped for,” she told FIS.
Asked how she’d celebrate Sunday’s win and a triumphant season overall, she told NRK, “I do not know whether it is suitable to tell on TV.”
Johaug, who notched more than a dozen podiums this season, said it would be an all-nighter.
“We will [stay out] until tomorrow morning,” she told NRK.
As for Kowalczyk, who called it quits before the end of World Cup Finals because of leg troubles: “It was a perfect season for me,” she told FIS. “If you take away the World Championships it was almost ideal. I won the Tour de Ski and my fourth Big Crystal Globe. … I will start training again in the first half of May. I think I will ski the same program as this year.”