KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The Norwegian women’s team of Ingvild Flugstad Østberg and Marit Bjørgen made Wednesday’s Olympic classic team sprint look like a walk in the park.
At least this time, they weren’t walking.
Following a series of bad races — badly timed smøreboms at the biggest races in four years — the Norwegian wax staff finally appeared to get things right on Wednesday as their women cruised to a semifinal victory in the 6 x 1.3-kilometer team sprint.
A decade apart in age, the duo of Østberg, 23, and Bjørgen, 33, found both kick and glide on the taxing course, winning the semifinal in 16:43.45 minutes, 5.31 seconds ahead of Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter and Stina Nilsson in second. The U.S. women placed third in the same semifinal, 7.91 seconds out of first after letting up in the final stretch, confident that their time was fast enough to advance to the final.
A little over an hour later, the top 10 teams from the semifinals went head to head in the final — same scramble-leg, anchor-leg order, same course, and slightly different conditions after temperatures dropped a few degrees to just above freezing later that afternoon.
The colder, the better for Norway, which struggled to finding the right wax for the fast-melting, heavily salted snow since the Olympics began a week and a half earlier. Since then, Bjørgen had been the highlight — winning the 15 k skiathlon on the opening day on Feb. 8.
After that, she face-planted in the semifinals of the skate sprint, placed fifth in the 10 k classic (after teammate Therese Johaug in third), then anchored Norway to fifth in the relay. Not bad, but not exactly up to par by Norwegian standards.
Something had to change, and by Wednesday, the Norwegians got back to their winning ways — grabbing gold in the team sprint for the first time in the event’s history at the last three Olympics. In doing so, Norway became the first nation to win a medal in all 12 Olympic cross-country events.
“The waxing team has done a very good job,” Bjørgen said in a press conference after the race. “They have been working very hard the last days and today we had the perfect skis. It was a hard time in the cabin and it’s good to see that we have good skis.”
Led by a strong opening leg in the final, in which Østberg tagged Bjørgen in second, 0.11 seconds after Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, the duo gradually blew apart the field. A 1.63-second lead over Finland by the third exchange grew to nearly 5 seconds by the fourth when Østberg started pushing the pace.
At the end of the second-to-last lap, Saarinen had reined in Østberg slightly, tagging her Finnish teammate Kerttu Niskanen just 4.21 seconds back in second. With one leg remaining, Germany’s Stefanie Böhler and Denise Herrmann were another 7.86 seconds back in third, and Sweden an additional 3.71 seconds behind in fourth.
Bjørgen proceeded to post the fastest time of the last lap, nearly four seconds faster than anyone else, and anchor the win in 16:04.05.
“I was so excited Bjørgen would be able to stand on their feet in the last turn,” Østberg told NRK, according to a translation. “I thought it would be fine, but you never know.”
Finland finished 9.09 seconds back in second, and Sweden’s Nilsson out-double-poled Herrmann for bronze about 10 seconds later.
Bjørgen had nothing but praise for her young teammate, who helped her win her second race of the Sochi Olympics and fifth total gold medal.
“She is totally raw,” Bjørgen told NRK. “She goes wonderfully well at distance races this year … so she is insanely strong.”
Østberg has looked up to Bjørgen since her early days of skiing, writing an essay about her in high school in 2007.
“The task was to write an essay about your role model,” Østberg told NRK. “I wrote that she was extremely good at skiing, strong and everything.”
Seven years later, Østberg won her first Olympic gold with that very woman.
“It’s crazy, really. I had never in my wildest imagination could have dreamed of this,” she said. “I’ve been training a lot with her and learned lots from Marit … She is a wonderful person both when things are going well and when it does not go well.”
If we’re comparing apples, it’s interesting to consider that Bjørgen was 22 when she won the sprint at 2003 World Championships. Just a year older into her athletic career, Østberg is a gold and silver medalist in Sochi, after placing second to teammate Maiken Caspersen Falla in the skate sprint.
“She is very strong, stronger than me,” Bjørgen said.
The two got a visit from Norway’s King Harald V as well, who hugged and congratulated them after the finish.
“I wonder if luck turned when the King came to Sochi yesterday,” Bjørgen told NRK. Harald reportedly came to Russia to follow Norwegian Olympians in contention for medals.
He found it in Norway’s women, who salvaged the reputation of their team on a day when the Norwegian men (with Ola Vigen Hattestad and Petter Northug) failed to make the podium (finishing more than three seconds off in fourth).
“It has been painful to see all the criticism [our wax technicians] have received recently,” Bjørgen said, according to a translation. “They work round the clock. Now it is incredibly amusing that this was the way. This is good for the wax technicians and all the support.”
For Finland, silver was good omen for more to come — as its men’s team of Iivo Niskanen and Sami Jauhojärvi won the following 1.8 k classic team sprint for their nation’s first men’s Olympic gold since 1998.
“We are so happy both of us for the men. They did really excellent work,” Saarinen said. “It was such an amazing race, so interesting to watch. We were screaming and laughing and crying, all the emotions going through.”
Skiing in fourth behind Herrmann into the stadium, Nilsson knew there was a chance for a medal if she did something spectacular. She beat Herrmann in a sprint finish, although Herrmann told reporters slow skis made her feel like “a lame duck” coming down off the last hill into the final stretch.
“When I came into the last 100 meters, I felt that I had a lot of power left, and I also saw that Denise was looking tired,” Nilsson said. “When I was right behind her I knew that I had a chance.”
She beat Herrmann for third by 1.15 seconds. Poland finished fifth, nearly 11 seconds later and 32 seconds behind Norway with Sylwia Jaskowiec and Justyna Kowalczyk. Russia was sixth (Anastasia Dotsenko/Julia Ivanova), and Switzerland seventh (Bettina Gruber/Seraina Boner). The U.S. placed eighth (Sophie Caldwell/Kikkan Randall), Austria was ninth (Katerina Smutna/Teresa Stadlober), and Slovenia 10th (Alenka Cebasek/Kajta Visnar).