(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from American Caitlin Patterson.)
The 2018 Olympics were pretty successful for Finland, in terms of cross-country skiing: Iivo Niskanen won gold in the 50 k and Krista Pärmäkoski earned silver in the 30 k and bronze in the skiathlon and the 10 k skate.
After the Games finished, the FIS Cross Country World Cup moved to Finland, but on the first day of competition – skate sprints – the host nation was stymied.
Among the frustrated was Pärmäkoski, who was tangled up when Germany’s Victoria Carl fell in a quarterfinal heat. Carl was relegated to last for her skiing, but that didn’t lessen the sting of not advancing for Pärmäkoski, who had qualified with the third-best time in the women’s field.
Sunday brought a 10 k classic, a favorite discipline for her, however.
“Yesterday was kind of annoyed, so I wanted to show [what I could do] today,” Pärmäkoski told Finland’s YLE broadcaster, according to a translation.
She set out with a vengeance, eventually notching her second career World Cup victory with a 20.9-second win over Natalia Nepryaeva of Russia.
“When in good shape, feeling bad feels good,” Pärmäkoski said.
Third place went to Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, who skied an even race to finish +29.2. She was tenth after a kilometer and a half, seventh at 3.7 k, and fifth at 5 k, but managed to ski up and bump Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen off the podium by just 0.3 seconds, for her first 10 k classic podium since 2012.
“I think it was the finish that secured [the podium],” she told Norway’s VG news site, according to a translation. “I think it went smoothly, very strong on the uphills, and I’m happy with it. I’ll take this finish with me.”
“Marit is the best athlete of all time, so it feels good that the time has come for me to be able to beat her,” Pärmäkoski told YLE.
Fifth went to Norway’s Heidi Weng, who opened hard but lost ground on the second lap of the 5 k course and finished 43.3 seconds behind Pärmäkoski. Teresa Stadlober of Austria was sixth (+52.4), Sadie Bjornsen of the U.S. seventh (+57.6), and Ingvild Flugstad Østberg of Norway eighth (+59.0). Aino Kaisa Saarinen (+59.1) and Johanna Matintalo (+1:13.4) rounded out the top ten, giving Finland four finishers in the top ten.
It was Saarinen’s last time competing on home ground, as the 39-year-old former World Champion is ending her World Cup career after this season. She cried as she was handed a bouquet of flowers at the finish line.
“It was certainly the best race of the season,” she told YLE.
Bjornsen Seventh in Post-Olympics Rebound
Like Pärmäkoski, Bjornsen had left Saturday’s sprint feeling frustrated. She had qualified in fifth position but then couldn’t make the right move in the quarterfinals and failed to advance to the semifinals.
“Yesterday was really awesome because I could see that I finally had some good feelings in my legs and I got really excited to keep racing,” Bjornsen said in an interview after the 10 k. “So, today, I don’t know, I was just approaching it like I wonder what can happen, like, let’s just send it hard and see what happens.”
With cold temperatures making for firm tracks, Bjornsen attacked the course’s long climbs – the biggest of which has a 44-meter height differential.
“I definitely really love the Lahti courses here,” she said. “I think that there’s like a lot of really awesome climbing. It’s not like they’re necessarily running hills; there’s actually some glide involved with them, and so I think it’s just really cool classic skiing… Right away I could see that I had some good skis under my feet and I just had nothing in the way, so I just went. I tried to go really hard from the start.”
The effect was immediately noticeable.
“I always try to go out hard and sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes it’s not,” Bjornsen laughed. “There’s no change in what my perceived effort. I think when I have good races is when that going hard actually is going hard. It was funny, because Matt [Whitcomb, the U.S. Ski Team women’s coach] was cheering at 3 k, and he just yelled ‘you finally went out hard!’ and I actually smiled in the race and was like, ‘ok, this is awesome.’ Like, ‘this is fun,’ you know?”
Unlike Weng and Niskanen, who faltered at the end, Bjornsen skied a fairly consistent race. She was sixth at 3.5 k, eighth at 6.1 k, and seventh at the finish, 57.6 seconds behind Pärmäkoski’s time and 30.9 seconds off the podium.
“I maybe struggled a little bit right there in the middle where I needed to continue being strong,” Bjornsen said. “I think that’s where those top girls are really making some time. When I have had my best distance races, it’s when I really nail between 5 and 7.5 k and that is kind of a point that I’ve been working on this year. And, I think that I maybe stuttered a little bit during that time. So I guess, looking back, I feel like that’s where I have to make an improvement for the future–to be in that podium place.”
For the U.S., Caitlin Patterson was next, just missing the World Cup points in 32nd (+2:02.7).
“The end of the race was good, but the beginning was a little rough,” Patterson wrote in an email. “The course starts out going up one of the sunniest hills, and by the time I started the snow had transitioned on that hill away from the wax that we were using. I had a terrible time getting up the first long rolling climb, but luckily I was able to pull myself together and re-focus for the rest of the race, and the skis worked much better for the rest of the course. So I’m happy with my effort, that I kept pushing and didn’t let up after a bumpy start. I would have been happier with a more consistently strong race, since I did lose quite a bit of time at the beginning that I wasn’t able to make up for later.”
Patterson raced the first and last events of the Olympics, placing 34th in the 15 k skiathlon and 26th in the 30 k classic mass start.
“My two races in Korea were separated by 15 days, but I certainly kept busy with training,” she explained. “I did a time trial, at least 3 interval sessions, some strength workouts, and distance workouts. It’s best for me to stay active and keep the speed up, since I knew that would be the best way to hopefully feel good for the 30k as well as to stay strong for the rest of the season. Beyond training in Korea, I felt really busy with all the time spent taking buses to and from places, but I did get out to watch a Big Air competition one day, and visited the Coastal village area a different day, so a bit of sight-seeing.
“I’m feeling ready to race and still excited for each start even at this point in the season,” Patterson continued. “If there was another race tomorrow, I’d absolutely want to do it. I feel like it’s been a while since I’ve had a consistent string of races, so I need more back to back to clear the cobwebs out again, and to reaffirm that I still have good racing fitness which I know is true.”
Ida Sargent and Sophie Caldwell finished 40th (+2:21.9) and 42nd (+2:24.2), respectively. Rosie Brennan finished 48th (+3:02.1) and SuperTour leader Kaitlynn Miller placed 51st (+3:09.1).
Liz Stephen of the U.S. Ski Team did not start due to illness.
Canada started two women: Emily Nishikawa finished 41st (+2:22.2) and Dahria Beatty 44th (+2:40.7).
— Andrea Potyondy-Smith contributed