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 – When you’ve already got 11 World Championship golds, it takes something really special to bring you to tears for the 12th one.
For Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, who’s been on the Nordic World Ski Championships podium more than any other woman, it wasn’t the 19 medals or number of victories that moved her. The 32-year-old was focused on her achievement in the one race that mattered most to her this season: the 30-kilometer classic mass start.
One of the sport’s most unrivaled competitors, Bjørgen had some losses over the years that haunted her. Placing second to Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk in the 2010 Olympics and again at the 2011 World Championships to teammate Therese Johaug topped the list. Both were in 30 k mass starts, and while she viewed the latter as “winning a silver,” it still wasn’t the gold she had hoped for.
And so she tailored her focus and training this season specifically for that race. That’s why Bjørgen, who will turn 33 in 19 days, took nearly a month off of World Cup racing from late-January to mid-February. That’s why she collapsed at the finish on Saturday and held her head in her hands as two of her teammates, Johaug and Kristin Størmer Steira, kneeled to hug her.
Her fourth gold medal of the week, and fifth in five races, meant everything to her. And she had worked for 30 k to get it.
“I think the other girls on the team knew that this was one of my biggest goals this season,” Bjørgen said at a post-race press conference. In the last 300 meters, she outsprinted Kowalczyk to claim her first 30 k gold since the 2005 World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany.
“They were really happy for me and we are really happy for the whole team that we have been so good in this World Championships,” she added. “We have taken many golds, many medals, but we haven’t celebrated yet.”
Bjørgen contributed to Norway’s total of 16, between the men and the women, with four golds – one of which was in Thursday’s relay – and a silver. Johaug added another gold and a bronze, which she took 5 seconds behind Kowalczyk on Saturday.
Easily a race favorite, Bjørgen had her work cut out for her in taking on Johaug, the defending world champ and this week’s 10 k winner, and Kowalczyk, the classic distance specialist. Of course there were other contenders, too, like Norway’s Heidi Weng, Germany’s Nicole Fessel, Sweden’s Anna Haag and Charlotte Kalla. Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen and Anne Kyllönen were also in the mix, along with Masako Ishida of Japan, but none came close to the podium.
The Kowalczyk-Bjørgen-Johaug trio wouldn’t let them.
On the third of six laps, the three frontrunners – who led from the start – began to drop the 42 other starters. Weng held onto the back, and Steira and Haag managed to stay within a few seconds behind. By the halfway point, six women remained in contention, with Bjørgen up front then Johaug, Kowalczyk, Weng, Fessel and Haag, respectively.
Lap four was a different story.
With temperatures soaring above 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit) and the snow softening accordingly, several of the top skiers had already changed their skis.
Ishida was the only one besides Kowalczyk, Bjørgen and Johaug to catch a glimpse up front, albeit briefly, at the start of lap three after they did so. She chose to go another round on the same boards and paid the price, slipping up the final climbs.
“I can’t make diagonal up so I was losing power,” Ishida said after falling back to 10th and fighting to keep that position to the finish. “It was difficult. I am not so strong like Marit Bjørgen and Justyna. … I made a mistake today.”
Still going strong up front halfway through the fourth lap, Kowalczyk, Johaug and Bjørgen steadily distanced themselves from the rest. Coming through the stadium at 20 k, Weng skied in fourth, 11 seconds back, and Fessel another 8.3 behind in fifth.
All the top women used their second opportunity to change skis, and Kowalczyk, Johaug and Bjørgen left the stadium with a sizable gap. Less than two kilometers later at the high point of the course, they were 34 seconds up on Weng.
Over the top of one of the last hills, Johaug looked over her shoulder to make sure no one was close. Comforted by the empty expanse behind her, she proceeded to switch leads with Kowalczyk and her teammate for the rest of the penultimate lap.
Heading into the stadium with 5 k to go, Bjørgen, Kowalczyk and Johaug had 42.5 seconds between them and Weng. Fessel was 57.4 seconds back in fifth, and Ishida was sixth, nearly a minute and 30 seconds behind, leading a chase group with Steira, Haag and Niskanen. Kyllönen was another nine seconds back in 10th.
The front three remained relatively quiet on the last lap, saving their energy for the final two kilometers. Bjørgen and Johaug strategically hung in second and third throughout the loop while Kowalczyk worked to stay ahead, picking up the pace on second-to-last hill.
Her Norwegian contenders answered, and they kept their order — Kowalczyk, Johaug, Bjørgen – over the top. As Kowaczyk double poled into the ensuing downhill, the other two stood up, conserving.
At the bottom, Bjørgen carried her momentum and pulled alongside Kowalczyk. With less than a kilometer left, this was the moment everyone had been waiting for. Bjørgen challenged Kowalczyk to the top, and Johaug slipped back while struggling with her kick. Before the descent, Bjørgen let Kowalczyk lead into the stadium.
“I attacked on the last climb and Justyna answered on that, and I thought, ‘I have to be in second [on the] downhill and use my power,’ ” Bjørgen told reporters.
The tactic worked as Bjørgen slingshot past Kowalczyk over the final bump before the long stretch to the finish. There, she extended her gap by several hundred meters, leaving no question who was the 30 k world champion. Bjørgen beat Kowaczyk by 3.7 seconds in 1:27:19.9, and Johaug finished third, 8.7 seconds back.
“I am proud of myself,” Bjørgen told NRK. “This here was my goal in this championship. I have an incredibly good feeling right now.”
Sitting on the ground with her head tucked into her knees, Kowaczyk absorbed the loss. She later told reporters she was disappointed, but pleased with the effort. Asked why she didn’t attack first, she said she tried, but without much luck.
“Today, Norway skied really good,” Kowalczyk said. “After 30 k, you don’t think nothing, you try to ski fast and fast and nothing more.”
The race’s 2011 freestyle champion, Johaug immediately congratulated her teammate at the finish, hovering over Bjørgen as she recovered on the ground.
“Justyna was much stronger than me to the last hill,” Johaug said at the press conference. “I won the bronze medal today. It was a special race; it was a lot of tactics and nobody wants to go first. This World Championships has been a dream for me. I leave here with one gold and one silver and one bronze medal, and of course, the gold in the relay so I could never dream about that before.”
Nearly a minute and 30 seconds off the podium, Weng was the third Norwegian across in fourth, 1:38.3 behind Bjørgen. Fessel notched her best individual result at World Championships in fifth (+1:49.0) and Haag was sixth (+2:05.7). Finland took seventh and eighth with Niskanen and Kyllönen, respectively, and Steira placed ninth. Ishida made it into the top 10, and Kalla, who competed in all six races at this year’s World Championships was 11th.
While it had nothing to do with the race, one of the most comical moments of the day came at the post-race press conference. Just when it seemed like the question-and-answer session with Bjørgen had come to an end, an Italian reporter asked her what she thinks about being a “sexy icon” – “sexikon” in Euro-speak.
“I’m not thinking about that,” she said. “I’m getting [to be] an old women and I think the younger women on the team like Therese and Heidi are much more sexy.”