2018 Olympics (PyeongChang, South Korea): Women’s 30 kilometer mass start classic
Marit Bjørgen went out with a bang. Skiing in presumably the final Olympics race of her illustrious career, the most-decorated Winter Olympian in history simply skied away from a strong field less than 10 kilometers into Sunday’s 30 kilometer classic mass start, earning the 15th Olympic medal of her career (and eighth gold) in dominant fashion.
Behind her, Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski (+1:49.5) and Sweden’s Stina Nilsson (+1:58.9) rounded out the podium, with Nilsson breaking away from Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg (+2:00.4) within the stadium to edge her out for third.
Fifth went to Charlotte Kalla of Sweden (+2:57.2), with Kerttu Niskanen of Finland sixth (+3:01.6). Jessie Diggins was seventh (+3:37.2), in an American performance that would have been lauded just a few years ago yet somehow represented her worst placing in all six races at these Olympics.
Heidi Weng of Norway (+4:07.9) in eighth, Teresa Stadlober of Austria (+4:14.1) in ninth, and Masako Ishida of Japan (+4:20.8) rounded out the rest of the top ten. Stadlober’s ninth-place finish was particularly poignant; she was holding steady in silver-medal position through 20 k, before taking a wrong turn at an ill-marked course intersection and losing well over a minute returning to the correct track.
But let’s go back to Bjørgen. Given those time gaps by the finish – nearly two minutes clear of second and third – this was clearly Bjørgen’s day. The 37-year-old Norwegian mother started in bib number 8, and was all of 1.1 seconds off the lead by the first checkpoint, less than one kilometer into the race. But after that… Bjørgen led by 2.3 k, midway through the first of four 7.5-k laps. Bjørgen led at 5 k. Bjørgen led at 7.5 k. Bjørgen led at 8.4 k. And so on. It was not literally a wire-to-wire victory, but it was pretty darn close.
The race went from a mass start contest to a solo endeavor at roughly 9.5 kilometers in, midway through the second lap. Bjørgen simply surged ahead, and immediately opened up a small gap. By 9.8 k, the gap was 7 seconds. By 12.5 k, it was already up to 33 seconds. By 15 k, the advantage had swelled to 51 seconds. Bjørgen was putting nearly 10 seconds per kilometer on a chase group composed of Olympic medalists and World Championships podium finishers.
With all due respect to Iivo Niskanen, the hero of Saturday’s courageous breakaway in the men’s 50 k classic, Bjørgen’s performance never felt in doubt the way Niskanen’s did. Bjørgen didn’t have any company, for one, and she had a shorter distance to cover, for another (“only” 20 k of solo skiing off the front). But mostly, well, she is Marit Bjørgen, the most dominant cross-country skier of all time.
Bjørgen’s gap stretched to as great as 2:04 by the 27.5-k mark of the course. Finally, approaching the finish, she slowed slightly over the last few hundred meters, accepting a large Norwegian flag from a Viking helmet-clad fan and beaming as she carried it across the finish line. Her final time was 1:22:17.6. If they were the final 82 minutes of racing of a five-Olympics career, they were an exceptionally dominant 82 minutes.
Behind her, a four-woman chase pack formed: Pärmäkoski, Kalla, Niskanen, and Stadlober. As late as 20 k, Kalla was still in seventh, nearly two minutes back of Bjørgen and roughly 35 seconds back of Stadlober in second.
Soon after this, Stadlober took her wrong turn, skiing for some distance on the wrong course before having her error pointed out to her by a courseside coach or tech. She dropped from second to eighth within a kilometer.
Reportedly, Austrian coach Markus Gandler was out on the course and the first to inform her of her mistake, yelling, “You are wrong!” She realized her mistake and turned around.
“We were preparing the feed and noticed she didn’t come,” Gandler told Austrian broadcaster ORF, according to a translation. “I ran over but she didn’t hear me while skiing up. Only on the downhill I caught her.”
“I don’t know if I should laugh or cry,” Stadlober told ORF after, according to a translation. “I can’t explain it to myself. I have been here for three weeks and if by now I don’t know the loop then I don’t know … I noticed skiing up that something wasn’t right because there was no more staff. When I looked over I just thought: Sh*t!”
She said she had been feeling great up until that point and confident about her skis.
“I would have had the power, but had-I-would-I [what could have been] is too late now,” Stadlober said of missing out on her first Olympic medal. “That’s life. It’s just bitter it happened in such a race and on a day when everything would have fit together.”
By 21 k, Pärmäkoski had a 13-second gap over Niskanen in the race for second, and Kalla had moved up to sixth. By 25 k, it was still Pärmäkoski in second, but now Østberg and Nilsson skiing lockstep in the fight for third.
Pärmäkoski was never seriously threatened over the final lap, and crossed the finish line for silver.
“I think that this 30 k was [the] hardest 30 k race [ever] for me,” Pärmäkoski reflected in a post-race press conference. “Of course I heard that Nilsson and Østberg come behind me and I also heard that now it’s 11 seconds, and then 14 seconds. And after this big downhill I heard that it’s a little bit more, but because I know that they are good in sprint, I just hoped that they can’t catch me. This was a crazy, crazy Olympics for me. Before I came here I wanted to win one individual medal and now I won three medals, so I am really happy.”
In two Olympics, Pärmäkoski, 27, now has four medals — three of which came in PyeongChang (silver in the 30 k and bronze in the 15 k skiathlon and 10 k freestyle races).
Behind her, Østberg and Nilsson dueled for the final podium spot. But while Østberg was aware of it, Nilsson hadn’t heard about Stadlober’s wrong turn ahead of them.
At the finish, Nilsson looked surprised when Bjørgen told her she had won the bronze. Bjørgen then went immediately over to console her teammate, Østberg, who finished fourth, 1.5 seconds behind Nilsson in third.
“I was quite sure that it was fourth. That I got the bronze was quite sick,” Nilsson told Norwegian broadcaster NRK, explaining that she thought the team staff was trying to give her false hope that a medal was within reach.
“I did not realize that Stadlober had gone wrong. I thought she had moved away,” Nilsson said.
But Østberg knew the bronze was between her and the Swede. “I definitely knew what I was fighting for. It’s amazing that she did not know, too,” Østberg told NRK.
Diggins would finish roughly 90 seconds later in seventh, 36 seconds behind sixth and 30 seconds ahead of eighth. The result was emblematic of her day, in which she had skied for much of the race entirely by herself.
Sadie Bjornsen was the next American, finishing in 17th (+6:32.6). The mid-teens result continued a trend at these Olympics; she was 14th in the classic sprint and 15th in the 10 k freestyle.
The third American on the day was Rosie Frankowski in 21st (+8:53.8). Forget first Olympic start for the 26-year-old Alaskan and Alaska Pacific University athlete (which it was), Frankowski has zero World Cup starts to her name. She was the second American in the 20 k classic at last month’s U.S. Nationals, though, behind Caitlin Patterson.
On Sunday Patterson was five spots behind in 26th (+10:26), after narrowly losing a sprint finish to Germany’s Victoria Carl.
For Canada, Emily Nishikawa led the way in 30th (+12:14.1). She was followed by Cendrine Brown in 43rd (+19:06.3), as Anne-Marie Comeau did not finish.
Also of note, Jessica Yeaton, who competes internationally for Australia but lives and trains in Anchorage with Alaska Pacific University, was 42nd (+18:37.2). And Petra Hyncicova, who skis in this country for the University of Colorado but races internationally for the Czech Republic, was 39th (+16:57.1).