PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Tuesday at PyeongChang’s Alpensia cross-country venue, the site of the Olympic Games women’s 1.25-kilometer classic sprint, Sweden’s Stina Nilsson took gold. On an evening when athletes were already challenged by an aerobic capacity testing course, shifting winds and falling snow, another factor made the challenge debilitating.
Nilsson came into the Games well-rested and well-primed to take her first individual Olympic medal. The 24 year old had come close before; at her first Olympics, the Swede placed 10th in the freestyle sprint in Sochi, Russia. There, she went on to claim bronze in the classic team sprint with teammate Ida Ingemarsdotter.
A year later in Falun, Sweden, at World Championships, Nilsson placed second in the individual classic sprint. When you are close, you begin to think more about achieving a singular goal and less about overall season-long outcomes.
Nilsson last raced a World Cup the weekend of Jan. 20-21 in Planica, Slovenia, where she raced to 13th place in the 10 k classic. The day before, on Jan. 20, Nilsson took a small prize: a World Cup classic-sprint win.
In her run up to PyeongChang, Nilsson explained she was able to focus on her training and block out distractions.
“Not so much pressure the last weeks, because I have not been on the Internet so much,” Nilsson said at the post-race press conference. “And not on Instagram. So the most pressure comes from myself, and that’s the pressure that I have to deal with. But today I managed to control those feelings and just ski so fast as I can.”
With temperatures hovering around 25 degrees on Tuesday evening, Nilsson was unstymied by the gusting winds or falling snow in formulating the answer to her success equation. Starting with Tuesday’s qualifier in PyeongChang, Nilsson marked the fastest time, stopping the clock in 3:08.74 minutes. With Nilsson pushing the pace, she also scored a win in the quarters. Again in her semifinal, Nilsson placed first after dualing with the 2014 Sochi skate-sprint champion, Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla (who also won the skate sprint at last year’s World Championships), in a photo finish.
“I had a really good day,” said Nilsson, a 2015 World Championships classic-sprint silver medalist. “I felt strong already in the prologue, and I felt also strong in the quarterfinal, and in the semifinal. I felt like I had some energy saved for the final.”
Lining up in the final trying to prevent Nilsson’s clean sweep on the day were Falla, Nilsson’s Swedish teammate Hannah Falk, American Jessie Diggins, and Russians Natalia Nepryaeva and Yulia Belorukova.
The energy Nilsson stated she had saved for the final was more than sufficient. Off the line she set the pace up the course’s first climb — a climb not steep enough to create big gaps and string out the field. The group stayed together with two skiers in the inside lane, three in the adjacent lane, and Diggins skiing outside the tracks and closing on the outside.
Topping out on the hill and taking a sharp 180-degree turn, Nilsson led but no skier pulled away. Down the hill, the six skiers tucked and glided and double poled into the course’s decisive climb with Belorukova then Falla the closet skiers to challenge.
The final hill is where Nilsson seized the day.
“I just wanted to cross the finish line totally tired, so I just went for it in the last uphill,” Nilsson said about her race tactics in the final. She carried considerable speed over the final climb and the gap grew to the two closest chasers, Falla and Belorukova.
“My plan was to save the most of the power until the last part of the [final] climb,” Falla, 27, said at the press conference. “But when the two others got a little gap in the first downhill, I used too much power in the first part of the climb. So in the top where I was planning to use all my power, there wasn’t that much left.”
Nilsson still had power to spare. She soloed off the front to win the final in 3:03.84 minutes. Falla took silver (+3.03), Belorukova, a 23-year-old Olympic rookie, bronze (+3.37).
In the post-race press conference, Belorukova was asked about the tense relationship between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Russian Ski Federation. The IOC banned numerous Russian skiers from PyeongChang for doping violations. Those Russian athletes competing at the 2018 Winter Olympics are not competing under the Russian flag, but as Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR).
“Good question,” Belorukova said through an interpreter. “There is nothing that will break us, there is nothing that will instill fear into us, we are strong and we will fight until the end.”
Nepryaeva ended up fourth (+9.14), Falk fifth (+11.16), and Diggins sixth (+11.23). FasterSkier will post an additional report on the U.S. women’s results.
— Chelsea Little, Harald Zimmer, Alex Kochon, Ian Tovell, and Gabby Naranja contributed