There has been no stopping Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) on classic skis lately. In Drammen, Norway, on Wednesday she continued the momentum from her distance win in Lahti and charged to victory yet again, this time in a 1.3 k city sprint. Save for a challenge from Heidi Weng (NOR) in the final round, the Polish star blew the competition away all day, and in the process secured the overall World Cup crystal globe for the 2012-2013 season and for the fourth time in her career.
“It is my first victory in Drammen,” Kowalczyk told the FIS interviewer at the finish. “I felt strong and could enjoy the race when I had secured the Overall World Cup.”
Weng finished second, 0.9 seconds behind Kowalczyk, and compatriot Invild Flugstad Østberg took third (+2.0).
After qualifying third behind Mona-Lisa Malvalehto (FIN) and Katja Visnar (SLO), Kowalczyk proceeded to stomp to three consecutive wins throughout the heats, leaving no room for doubt as to who the best sprinter on the course was. Marit Bjørgen (NOR), the recently-crowned World Champion, was notably absent due to illness, leaving the door wide open for Kowalcyk to win her quarterfinal by an gaping 1.62 seconds and her semifinal by 0.2 seconds after gapping the field early on.
If Kowalczyk felt the weight of the crystal globe on her shoulders, she didn’t show it.
“I was calm about the competition [for] the overall World Cup,” Kowalczk said on her website. “Today, so much beyond the statistics in this regard for me has changed. Of course, it’s nice, but that day I concentrated mainly on the [race].”
Her surges off the front of the pack in the first two rounds clearly projected Kowalczk’s expected strategy for the final, where she faced the two young Norwegians, Weng and Østberg, along with Evgenia Shapovalova (RUS), Kikkan Randall (USA) and Malvalehto (FIN). Such a field was not one to be trifled with, as Shapovalova had nearly caught Kowalczyk in the final meters of their semifinal, Malvalehto had looked strong all day and Randall was a newly-minted World Cup sprint champion.
It was with some surprise, then, to see Weng take the initiative to make the only attempt to hang onto Kowalczyk when the latter made her predictable blitz to the front. Kowalczyk looked back a few times as the pair drew away from the field, and each time Weng was right behind her.
The women behind them expected the move, and believed Drammen’s winding course and sharp corners would bring them back to the leaders before the finishing straight.
“I knew Kowalczyk would set a fast pace and I knew I could tuck in and conserve energy early,” Randall said. “That final stretch is so crucial every time.”
But the American wasn’t quite aggressive enough to be in a position to contend in that final stretch. Randall got stuck towards the back at the end as Weng and Kowalczk duked it out for gold. It was only in the last few meters, as they drew up to the awkwardly-situated finish line at the top of a short climb, that Kowalczyk was able to bury her challenger. Weng visibly struggled to stride fast enough as Kowalczyk kept double-poling, and when Kowalczyk finally broke into a confident stride she put 0.9 seconds on Weng before they both made an uphill lunge.
Østberg took third, 2.0 seconds back, Shapovalova was fourth (+4.5), Randall finished fifth (+4.7) and Malvalehto fell to sixth (+8.8).
After fighting hard to advance in her previous rounds, Weng said she simply ran out of energy at the conclusion of Drammen’s challenging course.
“I knew there is uphill in the finish and I believed I could be strong in a classic sprint here,” Weng said. “I thought I could beat Justyna but I was very tired in the end, but I am happy for second place.”
In front of an enthusiastic Norweigan crowd, Weng noted that two Norwegians on the podium was especially rewarding.
“Very gratifying that both the Norwegian in the finals ended on the podium,” she told the NRK.
The result is a new personal-best in sprinting for the 21-year-old and only her second career podium on the World Cup in a sprint event.
Østberg was equally happy with third place as it was her first individual World Cup podium ever and brought some satisfaction after a disappointing World Championships, where she failed to advance past the quarterfinals.
“It feels great to be on the World Cup podium for the first time in my career, especially here in Norway,” Østberg said. “The crowds were phenomenal. It is a great revenge for me after the World Championships.”