For a brief moment on Sunday in La Clusaz, France, it looked as though the women’s 4 x 5 k relay could be an interesting race. A few hundred meters out of the start Heidi Weng of Norway’s first team went down in a tangle with Ida Ingemarsdotter (SWE) and Holly Brooks (USA), breaking a pole, and for once Norway didn’t look infallible.
Twenty kilometers later, however, and the view of the finish line looked just like it has so many times before. Marit Bjørgen, after toying with Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen and allowing her to lead the first half of the anchor leg, skied casually into the stadium with no one in sight. The decorated Norwegian smiled and waved to the crowd as she skied by and crossed the finish nearly a half-minute behind ahead of Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen. Norway’s second team took bronze.
Though everyone watching usually expects Norway to win, this is apparently not the case with the athletes. “Many people take it for granted that we will win, but we do not,” Therese Johaug told the NRK. “We know we have to do a 100% job to succeed.”
Bjørgen concurred. “We are a good team, but… everyone has to do their job and we need to be focused,” she said.
For at least the past three straight years the Norwegian women have won every single World Cup relay on the calendar, and on Sunday they showed again what they can do when everyone does their job well.
It wasn’t a Norway show right from the gun. After the early pile-up sorted itself out Weng struggled to regain her focus and Finland gave her a run for her money. “I did not lose so much time on it directly, but I could not get it calmed down afterwards,” Weng told the NRK. “The whole thing was just annoying.”
Both France and Finland both pulled away from Weng during the first 5 k, and at the first exchange Anne Kyloennen (FIN) tagged off to Aino-Kaisa Saarinen to put Finland in a five-second lead on the rest of the field.
It was not an insurmountable difference by any means, but it took some doing for Norway to catch back up in the second leg. Johaug’s quick tempo put her right on Saarinen’s tails in the later half of her 5 k, and from there the writing was on the wall.
Johaug passed Saarinen on an uphill, handed off to Kristin Størmer Steira with an 8.7 second lead and Norway essentially had a straight shot from there to the win. With an anchor leg like Bjørgen waiting in the wings all Steira had to do in the third portion was not let Finland’s Riitta-Liisa Roponen get away.
Steira did what she needed to. When Bjørgen got the handoff Niskanen had a fraction of a second on her, but the position worked to Bjørgen’s advantage. She was able to draft and coast for a few kilometers and let Niskanen do the work before turning on the backburners. When Bjørgen decided it was time to go, Niskanen didn’t have the energy to respond. There was no one in sight as Bjørgen cruised happily into the stadium and crossed the line with her arms raised.
With both a relay and individual victory in La Clusaz this weekend, Bjørgen completed a perfect return to the World Cup circuit since taking a break due to an irregular heartbeat experienced in December. Bjørgen’s skiing showed no sign of setback from the incident and she said her health has felt back to normal ever since.
“The body and heart functioning very well,” she said.