PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Hot from the start, the expected Olympic-opening pace in the women’s 15-kilometer skiathlon on Saturday was a blistering tease. With the U.S. Ski Team’s Jessie Diggins, Norway’s overall World Cup leader Heidi Weng and Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla striding three abreast on the opening climb, the tactics were clear: hang with chargers from the get-go. That’s the blistering part.
Much is at stake on the Olympic stage and making the cut with the skiers up front on Saturday’s skiathlon required high-rev, keep-in-contact speeds with just enough pedal off the gas to keep hopes alive. On a course built into a golf course that would seem to require golfers to be marathon-fit — the hills are for real — the attrition from the back was steady. Yet at 3.75 k into the classic leg, the race hadn’t been decisively shattered. There was still a semblance of an organized field of skiers. Twenty-four skiers ranging from Germany’s Victoria Carl in first to Finland’s Laura Mononen in 23rd, were separated by 4.3 seconds at 3.75 k. That part was the tease.
Although it may have appeared like it could have been any one of those skier’s race, that was only a mirage. Already the skiathlon champ from the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, had moved into the front. Her control move wasn’t decisive, but it was a reminder to the young corps of racers in her midst that her final Games wasn’t a farewell tour.
Bjørgen skied in front, but the likes of two Swedes, Charlotte Kalla and Ebba Andersson, kept a checkmate-type watch on the venerable queen of international cross-country skiing. Also on Bjørgen’s flanks were teammates Weng and Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski, Switzerland’s Nathalie von Siebenthal, and Austria’s Teresa Stadlober. And right in there, for moments in contact, then out of contact, then right there again, was perhaps the most tenacious in the bunch, Diggins.
Weng was the first out of the ski exchange at 7.5 k followed in order by Østberg, Bjørgen, Kalla, Pärmäkoski, Andersson, Stadlober, Russia’s Natalia Nepryaeva, Diggins and von Siebenthal.
Immediately after the exchange, a long grinder of a hill kicks up out of the stadium. And it was not as if Kalla played her full house of a hand at the start of the skate portion, but she certainly made it clear her fitness and motivation were no bluff.
From 9 k to 11.5 k, the race was all about gamesmanship. At moments, Kalla and Andresson appeared to be setting the pace in an attempt to prevent others from upping the tempo. The two Swedes slowed around 26:40 minutes, and allowed Bjørgen to take over the pace-making. Although Bjørgen’s limited World Cup run this year has shown a smidge of mortality — she’s won two of 10 World Cup races entered — one couldn’t help but think that Bjørgen would simply pull away after some herculean effort and dust the field.
Around 12 k into the race, roughly 32:40 minutes in, Kalla dug into a powerful V2 and sure enough gapped the lead group by five then ten meters. With 1.5 k to go, Kalla had a 9.6-second lead on Bjørgen in second. Bjørgen led the chase, with Andersson, Pärmäkoski, von Siebenthal and Diggins close behind her.
“I knew that she was trying to attack in that area, so I was looking for her,” Bjørgen said of Kalla during a post-race press conference. “We had a downhill and then she attacked when we were down. I tried to follow her, but we were too many girls and I didn’t get her back like I wanted to. So she got some meters early in the attack, and then I knew that it was hard. I tried and pushed hard to attack her, but she was too strong.”
Kalla’s version of her winning move illustrates the singular focus with which she’s skied on the World Cup this season. The 30-year-old Swede has entered eight races, winning three and placing second twice.
“I didn’t know exactly where Marit was,” Kalla recalled in the press conference. “I knew that she was in the front somewhere, but I just tried to focus on my performance when I increased the speed and not what the others did. … Yes, there were thoughts about what are the others doing but I just tried to focus on my performance all the time and just look forward and I knew that I have been in pain many times during the summer.”
Kalla’s victory, however, never really seemed certain with Bjørgen chasing — as if the 37-year-old Norwegian could simply roll back the years and gobble up meter after meter until she clung to Kalla’s tails.
Only after Kalla had gone up and over the steep final climb and came bolting down a sweeping banked turn close to the stadium’s straightaway finish, was her win assured. With enough distance on the chasers, Kalla raised her arms in victory and scored gold.
Winning the skiathlon in 40:44.9 minutes, Kalla became the first Swedish women to have won three gold medals at the Olympics. The victory is her second in a non-relay event at the Games, with her last individual gold coming in the 10 k freestyle back in 2010 in Whistler, British Columbia. Her second gold came four years ago at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where she anchored Sweden’s 4 x 5 k relay team to the win.
Bjørgen pulled slightly ahead of Pärmäkoski and Andersson to place second, 7.8 seconds behind Kalla. Before the descent into the stadium, Pärmäkoski passed Andersson on the last climb stayed just ahead of her to the finish, toeing for bronze (+10.1), while Andersson, a 20-year-old first-time Olympian, placed fourth (+10.9). Diggins pushed for fifth (+14.7), which stands as the best Olympic finish by an American female cross-country skier.
Bjørgen remarked at the press conference that her years racing at the sharp end of the World Cup has allowed her to fully understand how to peak for the big events.
“Since before Sochi, I was doing actually the same, competing before Christmas and then not competing so much before the Olympics,” she said of her established tapering plan. “I have been training and not doing the Tour de Ski, so that has been good for me, and I really wanted to do the same this year.”
One race into the Olympics, that recipe has worked. But Bjørgen knows, too, her time is divided with caring for a young child, and afterall, she is Marit, so a limited World Cup race schedule might not be such a big deal.
“Things are different for me now, to be a mom also it’s harder to do every race,” Bjørgen said. “And of course I am 37 years old … I think that’s not good for me to do every race. And also, I don’t need so many races to do a good race.”
Diggins, 26, came into the race having won the last World Cup distance race, a 10 k freestyle mass start, in Seefeld, Austria. That win wasn’t a surprise, rather it was an affirmation of her third overall ranking on the World Cup.
So while it was an all-Scandinavian podium (or more accurately, all-Nordic nations podium) on Saturday, Diggins is knocking.
During the classic portion of the skiathlon, there were moments when it appeared the U.S. Ski Team (USST) member would pop just enough off the lead pack to acquiesce the ground lost. But that is not her style. She skied fierce.
The splits on the results sheet don’t indicate what was evident. Diggins willed herself to keep in the bronze-medal hunt. On the last hill before the finish, Diggins went for it. Whatever fumes were left gave the momentary appearance that just maybe she could close the gap to Pärmäkoski and even Bjørgen. To say the American skier came up short is to get it wrong. She has proven she’s in the Olympic medal hunt. This athlete came through.
“I am really psyched with today,” Diggins told FasterSkier after the race. “It was a really good race. It was not my best race, but in terms of skis, tactically, physically, mentally, that was a really really good race for me. I was just struggling with some cramps out there, like my triceps were twitching on me and I couldn’t quite feel my legs. And so when I was trying to go and make my move, I just … I was pushing so hard and my body wasn’t quite responding the way I was hoping it would.”
Diggins went on to explain that she’ll focus on her race hydration and fueling to temper the prospects of cramps.
A fifth place for Diggins in a gutsy performance was a confidence boost.
“Being seconds out of a medal is so exciting because I know it’s possible,” she added. “I have the belief, I have the confidence, and I have the love and support from home. And I definitely have the boards, oh my gosh, our techs did such a good job, my skis were so fast. So I am really happy with it.”
Canada’s 24-year-old Cendrine Browne, of Cross Country Canada’s National U25 Team, was the next best-placed North American, finishing in 33rd (+3:17.0). In her first Olympics, Browne explained that her pre-race nerves were settled after an anxious Olympic-qualifying series before the Games.
“I was really calm actually, I was more stressed out for trials [in early January] before coming here because I really wanted to be here,” Browne said. “So now that I’m here, I just want to enjoy and race and do my best. I just want to finish every race and tell myself, yes, I did everything I could today.”
American Caitlin Patterson (also in her first Olympics) skied to 34th (+3:30.0). U.S. Ski Team member Kikkan Randall placed 40th (+4:02.3).
In her fifth Olympics, Randall explained after the race that she still felt those pre-race nerves.
“Just because you’ve done it more times doesn’t mean it gets any easier,” Randall, 35, explained. “I definitely was nervous. It helped to walk in the Opening Ceremony last night because that’s always such a highlight. I’ve been having a really good time with the girls.”
Randall knows the pulsing nature of race dynamics and that the scorching pace someone like Bjørgen, Kalla or Diggins can throw down isn’t insurmountable if it’s your day.
“I was definitely nervous coming into today just because I knew when I ski well and ski in the pack, I can have a really good performance,” Randall said. “But it’s always kind of a critical point out there when the pace is high and whether or not you can hang with it. So I wanted to try and be able to hang with that pace today and that was my goal. I did it for about 2 k and then I kind of fell apart. It’s just how it goes.”
Randall admitted she was surprised she didn’t have better sensations during the race after what she stated was a solid week of training.
Canadian World Cup Team member Emily Nishikawa finished 44th (+4:31.7), Canada’s Anne-Marie Comeau (a Laval University student at her first Olympics) finished 48th (+4:57.9), Australia’s Jessica Yeaton (who trains with Alaska Pacific University) was 50th (+4:59.9), Canada’s Dahria Beatty 52nd (+5:32.4), and American Rosie Brennan 58th (+6:51.1).
“It wasn’t a great day for me as I’ve been struggling with some illnesses the last month and it’s kind of just left me a little bit of an empty feeling,” Brennan told FasterSkier after the race. “I was hoping that it would have turned around by now but I wasn’t quite there so I’m happy to be here and happy to have finished my first Olympic race and I’m hoping I still have some time to turn things around in the coming weeks.”
The men’s 30 k skiathlon is the next cross-country event on the schedule in PyeongChang, set for Sunday at 1:15 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.
— Harald Zimmer, Alex Kochon and Aleks Tangen contributed