LAHTI, Finland — Electric.
With every jumbotron shot of Finland’s Krista Parmakoski or a glimpse of her powerful compact-frame as she lapped through the stadium, the hometown Finns were electric. White and blue flags waved. Like anywhere in the world when a brilliant athletic performance unfolds in the home country, the roars for Parmakoski were deafening.
From the start, she emitted a big dose of hope for fans in Lahti during Saturday’s 15-kilometer skiathlon at the 2017 Nordic World Championships.
The move that split the 50-starter field came early and was decisive thanks to Norway’s Marit Bjørgen. A 14-time world champion before the race, Bjørgen was often at the front of a four-woman group that defined the 7.5 k classic leg. In that front group, with each skier taking short pulls as the leader — were Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, Norway’s Heidi Weng, and Parmakoski.
Bjørgen was the force-setting tempo most often. But with almost every acceleration, Parmakoski would ski up beside the queen of skiing — buoyed by the cheers and the confidence the day could be hers.
“I had really good skis, and of course there were so many spectators screaming my name,” Parmakoski said in the post-race press conference. “Everything was such a good feeling, and the uphills seemed smaller than yesterday, and everything feeling so easy today.”
In the early rounds of this chess match, the strategy seemed simple: ski smoothly and cross the fingers about shadowing Bjørgen’s surges. The first stumble in that tactic came just 7 1/2 minutes in when speeding around a tight downhill corner, Kalla lost her footing and spilled. She righted herself and eventually returned to the group.
After 7.5 k, the striding morphed to skating at the exchange. With the change in techniques, it would be hard to imagine a better sight to Finnish eyes: Parmakoski skated out the stadium in first after a dialed ski swap.
Locked in and a few seconds back were Kalla and Weng. And if hope wasn’t already ratcheted up enough for the fans, Bjørgen fumbled her gear switch and followed in Parmakoski’s wake five seconds back.
Bjørgen is a seasoned champ. A stumble securing a binding or securing a pole grip, a five-second loss — that amounts to nothing. Skating up the course’s first big climb, which happened to rear up just meters from the stadium, Bjørgen eventually latched back on.
A single kilometer later at 8.8 k, Bjørgen and Parmakoski had gapped Kalla and Weng by ten seconds. Then it morphed to 15 seconds, then 30 seconds at 11.25 k. Only a foreshortened camera shot of Kalla and Weng skiing behind would make anybody think they weren’t a world away.
Down to two.
On the last 3.75 k lap, the games began. There were glances to one another. A slight dulling of the pace by Bjørgen, but no real bait taking on behalf of Parmakoski. The Finn understood full well who the trap setter was, admitting after the race that Bjørgen was an idol.
“My tactic was that Marit could go first, and then I would be second position,” the 26-year-old Parmakoski said during the press conference.
Bjørgen’s perception of the gamesmanship? “I wanted to get back behind her, to relax a little bit, and she wanted to go ahead, so that was good for me,” the 36 year old explained of the dodge and parry. “She tried in the long uphills, and I felt that I could manage that good, so I had in my head that in the last kilometer I would try, and I had the feeling I might be a little bit better in the sprint. “
Bow before the queen.
The last hill before the technical descent into the stadium is where it went down. It was a simple illustration of why she’s a legend: Bjørgen went.
“So I tried, and I was getting the few meters that I wanted, so I was feeling good,” Bjørgen said of her attack.
Parmakoski was deferential after the fact. “On the last uphill [Bjørgen] was better and amazing.”
After 15 k, two techniques, and 37:57.5 minutes, Bjørgen became historic, winning a 15th championship medal, besting Russia’s Elena Välbe, who holds 14 titles.
Only 4.8 seconds later, Parmakoski crossed the line, arms raised and indeed fulfilling that early onset of Finland’s burgeoning hope. “This is as good as winning for me, in front of home crowds,” Parmakoski remarked.
Kalla had her own fight for bronze. She skied with Weng until 11.25 k. But eventually Kalla stretched Weng too thin — in less than a kilometer she shook the Norwegian who ceded 18.6 seconds in that distance. Kalla finished third (+32.0).
Lurking behind Weng as she petered out was Switzerland’s Nathalie von Siebenthal. With less than four kilometers to go, von Siebenthal remained 21 seconds in back of Weng.
“In skating, it was beautiful,” von Siebenthal told Swiss broadcaster SRF.
After suffering a bit during the classic leg, the Swiss skier felt emboldened during the skate.
Von Siebenthal explained that she asked Austrian skier Teresa Stadlober — who at the time she was racing with — if they were positioned in sixth or seventh.
“She didn’t answer,” von Siebenthal said. “And then when we were skiing through the arena I saw on the screen that the fourth was just ahead, Kalla and Weng. And I thought, ‘Cool, we are sixth or seventh’. And then there still was the Russian, and I just thought, ‘Now I must not miss the diploma!’ “
As Weng’s fade became a hemorrhage by the finishing stretch, she and von Siebenthal sprinted for fourth. The Swiss bested Weng, who placed fifth, by 0.1 seconds.
Of the four U.S. skiers that started the women’s race, three placed in the top 30. Kikkan Randall skied to 17th (+2:09.2), and her fellow U.S. Ski Team member Liz Stephen 20th (+2:12.4) and Rosie Brennan 28th (+3:03.2). Jessie Diggins started in bib 5, but decided to pull herself from the race.
“I went into it today ready to go, body feeling good,” Diggins told the U.S. Ski Team media.
Early on in the classic leg, Diggins, coming off a sprint silver medal, struggled.
“I didn’t ask for as much kick as I should have, I accept responsibility for it,” Diggins said. “But I was definitely struggling to make contact, maintain contact with the packs I needed to be with in order to individually have a good day. And when I realized that individually this wasn’t gonna be my day, I made the call to prioritize the team events later in this week … So I made the best call at the time, and I think it was thinking of the team, that’s what I need to do.“
Diggins is slated to start Sunday’s team sprint and the women’s 4 x 5 k relay later next week.
Also a medal winner on Thursday, Randall spoke of the frenzied pace off the line. “You know, women’s racing is always so crazy off the start,” Randall told FasterSkier. “So I just kind of learned to accept and try go with the pace, and no matter what happens just keep up your head and ski one hill at a time.”
Noting her skis carried speed on the classic leg, but faulting herself for not executing good kick, Randall looked forward to the skate portion after coming through the ski exchange in 23rd.
“So I came into the transition in a pretty good place, and once I got on my skate skis I just feel so much more confident,” Randall added. “The energy was quite good, I probably should have attacked a little bit more on those last couple climbs. But I am pretty happy.“
For Stephen, the skiathlon marked her first race at these world championships. “Definitely feels good to get one race out of the way, it’s kind of hard to sit around and wait,” Stephen said. “So I was ready to race.”
During the interview, Stephen claimed she struggles with classic technique and as a result, skiathlons are often an unknown. “The pursuits are really hit or miss,” Stephen explained.
On Saturday, she exited the exchange in 26th. And then she skied up.
“That’s where my goal today was, the first lap of skating, trying to make a break,” Stephen said of the start of her skate leg. “Because it’s too late for me if I wait for the last lap. And I am somebody who, I think I may be in the minority in that, when I switch to skating I’m like ‘Thank God!’ and I think a lot of people struggle for the first k to get their legs underneath them. And so I try to take advantage of that, especially with a huge hill coming right out of the stadium.“
In her second-career World Championships, Brennan kept it simple with her post-race comments. “Just not feeling the zing I wanted,” Brennan said.
Canada’s national U25 Team member Cendrine Browne placed 35th (+4:15.5) in her World Championships debut.
Browne explained she was caught up in a crash moments after the start. “I was lucky enough to be able to go on the side, and not be part of the crash,” Browne said. “And afterward there was a big gap. And I was able to pass a lot of girls because of the crash. So I caught up to the group that was in front of me.”
She passed through the exchange in 35th.
“I also had a really great exchange, I came in the exchange lane with three girls and I came out the exchange zone first,” Browne said.
She skied the 36th-fastest skate leg, yet was only twenty seconds off from a top-30 time.
Browne along with Dahria Beatty will represent Canada in Sunday’s team sprint.
Also for Canada, Emily Nishikawa (Canadian World Cup B-team) placed 38th (+4:29.3), Katherine Stewart-Jones (U25 Team) finished 40th (+4:38.1).
Racing continues Sunday with the classic team sprint.
— Jake Ellis, Harald Zimmer and Gabby Naranja contributed