You know what they say about the Finns; those women are good at team sprints.
Aino-Kaisa Saarinen and Anne Kyllönen dominated Sunday’s 1.25-kilometer classic team event at the World Cup in Asiago, Italy, giving a lesson to more than 20 other teams on how to get out front and stay there.
The duo won their semifinal ahead of two American teams – Ida Sargent and Sophie Caldwell for USA II, and Sadie Bjornsen and Kikkan Randall for USA I, respectively. The three broke away on the last of three legs, Finland won, USA II automatically qualified in second and USA I skied fast enough to get a lucky-loser spot.
Earlier in the heat, Caldwell and Randall shook off an inadvertent collision, in which Randall went down and Caldwell skied on, at the end of their first leg. As the two converged around a 180-degree corner before the exchange, Randall fell Karolina Grohova of the Czech Republic came up from behind and “toppled over me,” Randall said in a phone interview. With a “little raspberry” on her hip, she got up quickly, tagged Bjornsen, and the two made up the 10-second deficit to Finland and their American teammates up front.
Despite what happened behind them, Finland was in control from start to finish on Sunday. They advanced to the final without any major stresses and started that race in second, following Norway’s No. 1 team by 0.2 seconds into the first exchange. The 26-year-old Kyllönen then charged to the front of the pack and the Finns held their own for the rest of the race.
By the second-to-last exchange, Saarinen had given Finland a 4.4-second lead on Norway’s Ingvlid Flugstad Østberg and Maiken Caspersen Falla. The cat-and-mouse game between Finland and Norway, with Germany another five seconds back in third, was losing its allure. Finland was getting away, Norway was going to have to hold off Germany’s Katrin Zeller and Denise Herrmann, and the Americans were going to have to fight for fourth.
As Kyllönen sealed the Finnish victory in 19:15.72, Norway I hustled for second, 9.68 seconds back. Falla barely edged Herrmann, who pushed for second and ended up third, 0.34 seconds behind Falla. Norway II’s Kari Gjeitnes and Celine Brun-Lie stayed in front of the U.S. and Russia to place fourth (+11.53), and Randall anchored USA I to fifth, 18.48 seconds after Finland and 19 seconds ahead of Russia II’s Julia Ivanova and Anastasia Dotsenko.
Switzerland took seventh with Bettina Gruber and Laurien Van Der Graaff (+19.25), and Sargent and Caldwell ended up eighth (+20.56).
“It is great to be back on the top of the World Cup podium,” Saarinen, a 34-year-old World Cup veteran embarking on her third Olympic, told FIS.
The last time she stood on top of the podium in World Cup or Olympic event – team or individual – was 2009.
“It’s been a great day not for only for me but for Finland,” she added. “Anne was very strong today.”
Last February, Kyllönen teamed up with Mona-Liisa Malvalehto to win the pre-Olympic classic team sprint at the World Cup in Sochi, Russia. That was a good sign then; this is even better now less than 50 days out from the 2014 Olympics.
“Finland was very strong but hopefully in February we can be stronger,” Østberg told FIS after achieving her first podium of the season.
The Norwegians remained within 1 ½ seconds of Finland through four laps until Saarinen dropped Østberg on her final lap.
Gruber opened strong to put Switzerland in third through the first leg, but Van Der Graaff drifted to six before Gruber could bring them back to third on her second leg. After her third time around, Gruber tagged in eighth behind USA II in seventh. USA I was fourth with one lap to go, 2.3 seconds behind Norway I in third and 12.2 seconds behind the Finns.
With nearly five seconds to play with, Kyllönen extended her gap to bring the victory home, refusing to let up.
“I was very tired all day, but that was a very good race,” Saarinen said.
“They went hard from the gun and kept the level high,” Randall said.
She and Bjornsen fell behind on the second leg, with Bjornsen tagging her in ninth and Randall recovering to fifth before the second-to-last exchange. At the Sochi team sprint last season, Bjornsen and Sargent placed fifth.
“I am confident that both teams could be in the runnings for a medal if everything went golden!” Bjornsen wrote in an email about Americans’ competitive team combinations. “But that is how we light the fire. First we find a possibility on a ‘perfect day,’ and then we have that perfect day, and the confidence brings even more!”
Third in the Sochi team sprint behind Russia in second, Canada’s Perianne Jones and Dasha Gaiazova finished eighth in their semifinal for 16th overall.