LAHTI, Finland—The Norwegian lineup for the women’s 4 x 5-kilometer team at the 2017 Nordic World Championships on Thursday was daunting: Maiken Caspersen Falla, Heidi Weng, Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, Marit Bjørgen. On paper and on snow, a rundown of names and accomplishments.
Here during these Lahti championships the Norse foursome have hauled; Falla with a freestyle sprint gold, Falla and Weng with a classic team sprint gold, Bjørgen a 10 k individual classic gold and 15 k skiathlon gold, and Jacobsen’s hardware was a bronze in the 10 k classic.
On Thursday the Norwegian women made the country’s historic championship gold medal count a tidy 100 by winning the 4 x 5 k relay in 52:21.5 minutes. In a sprint for the remaining two podium spots, Sweden’s anchor skier Stina Nilsson outsprinted Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski for second.
The Swedish team of Anna Haag, Charlotte Kalla, Ebba Andersson, and Nilsson scored silver (+1:01.6) while Finland’s home team of Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, Kerttu Niskanen, Laura Mononen, and Pärmäkoski was third (+1:02.1).
The U.S., represented by Kikkan Randall, Sadie Bjornsen, Liz Stephen, and Jessie Diggins, placed fourth (+1:33.8).
Two Legs of Parity, Then Norwegian Dominance
Rabid fans of the sport know Norway is winner of the last three consecutive championship relays. And lovers of tactics also know the Norwegians like to push the pace from the gun and break the pack early.
Halfway through the first leg, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk, a classic specialist, led Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the U.S. through the 2.5 k mark.
For Falla, Norway’s scramble leg, it was her debut in a championship 4 x 5 k relay. Despite her prior medals, her pre-relay nerves were unsettled.
“I was really excited today and I was just hoping that the time could pass fast so I can race,” Falla said after the race. “It was a lot of waiting time, but I get good advice … and that helped me today. So I get my nerves under control.”
According to Falla, here’s the advice: “That I should stay behind the first lap and be strong in the climbs in the last lap,” she explained. “I did that, just as they said.”
In the last kilometer, Falla made a small break, tagging off to Weng with a near eight-second advantage on the chasers.
Weng leads the World Cup overall standings, but racing in the Finnish ski-den, she was unable to fend off the surging Finns. Five kilometers later, Niskanen had absorbed Norway’s punch. Finland and Norway tagged off to their respective third-leg skiers simultaneously. Sweden trailed twelve seconds back.
Up the first hill, the mother of all climbs on the skating course, Jacobsen and Mononen pulsed. Carrying Sweden’s hopes was Andersson — a 19-year-old junior fresh off a win in the 5 k skate at last month’s Junior World Championships at Soldier Hollow in Utah.
The Finn-Norwegian duo pulled away, leaving Andersson with a 22.6-second deficit 1.3 k into the third leg.
A resurgent Jacobsen kept pushing; her moves to drop Andersson early on weren’t only a tactic to make it a two-team race, but a sustained display of overdrive that ultimately broke the Finns, too.
The third leg was the tipping point for Finland and Sweden. They were on the side of bleeding time to Norway; Norway on the side of looming victory. By 13.8 k, Norway was up 30.4 seconds on Finland and 45.8 seconds on Sweden.
Andersson managed the damage. She and Mononen skied into the stadium amidst a raucous Finnish crowd. By then, Jacobsen handed Bjørgen nearly a minute cushion.
That kind of margin and Bjørgen hustling from the line: Boom!
You know how this ends, with the queen waving an oversized Norwegian flag.
After the race, Jacobsen spoke of the pressure of skiing on Norway’s storied relay teams.
“I think actually the biggest pressure is the one we put on ourselves and probably because it’s so hard for us to qualify for the team,” Jacobsen said. “We are skiing for the girls who didn’t make it this year but will probably make it next year. So we ski of course for our people and our nation. But I think the biggest nerves come from the desire to perform well and do strong legs.”
One hundred championship gold medals later, Jacobsen acknowledged it’s a full treasure chest.
“The Norwegian people are getting spoiled in gold medals, but it not so easy like it looks,” Jacobsen said.
Glide for glide, pole for pole, Sweden and Finland were mirror images the last leg. Known as a closer, Nilsson strategized that coming into the final corner she wanted to follow Parmakoski.
Sweden’s second-leg skier Kalla explained that Nilsson’s tactic was one of waiting until the end.
“If Stina should go with some team in the end, she should wait to the stadium and just focus on her strength and she made it just like the plan,” Kalla said.
Days earlier in the team sprint, Nilsson lost out on bronze to Diggins in a sprint to the line.
“In the team sprint I was first in the final curve,” Nilsson reflected. “And I felt that Diggins had an advantage of it, so I didn’t want to be first today.”
The press conference’s moderator interjected and tried to correct Nilsson, saying she was first again in the closing moments, not shadowing the Finn.
“No, not in the curve, but after the curve,” Nilsson said with a laugh.
The silver and bronze fight came down to Nilsson’s final kick and this time she made it stick for silver.
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Same Place, But Progress: U.S. Places Fourth, Canada 10th
With three world champs medals already in the hands of American skiers prior to Thursday’s team relay, the public hope for a podium was high. Perhaps too high.
As U.S. Ski Team (USST) Head Coach Chris Grover explained, medaling in the team relay was certainly on the radar coming into the world champs week, but not where the team’s greatest expectations were held.
“The relay we knew was a shot, the team sprint we knew was an outside shot,” Grover said after Thursday’s race. “Probably our greatest medal opportunity was the individual sprint.”
As a gritty group of women, the Americans exude the attitude of a top team. Adorned in red, white and blue socks and face paint sporting the U.S.A.’s emblematic stars and stripes, it’s easy to see the enthusiasm the U.S. women show for team events.
But where does the blur between team-relay hype end and the reality of results begin?
Disappointment in anything less than a podium only comes when the expectation of one exists. Taken over the past few world champs years, the relay event might be one where the U.S. women can, and have, improved the most.
Eight years ago, at the 2009 world champs in Liberec, Czech Republic, the U.S. finished 13th, a little over three minutes out of third place. The following World Championships year, 2011 in Oslo, Norway, they were almost two minutes off the podium, crossing in ninth overall.
In 2015, the team finished fourth, a little over a minute back from the bronze medal.
This year? The U.S. once again finished fourth — the third time in a row that the team has finished one place outside the podium at a World Championships event.
Yet, Thursday’s performance was the second closest the team has come to bronze, with the Americans crossing 31.7 seconds after third (their 2013 result in Val di Fiemme, Italy, was closer: 26.6 seconds behind third). Given room for systematic error, the statistical trend for the U.S. women in the team relay over the past five world champs: positive.
“Even though this is the third time in a row that we’ve been fourth place at a world championships, there’s progress, there’s real progress,” Grover said. “The athletes could see the competition ahead of them the whole time. … To be getting closer and closer to that top standard, that’s very gratifying.”
When looking at the longer-distance performances from the week in tandem with Thursday’s start list, Grover further explained that the U.S. team’s incoming rank was similar to their outcoming result.
“I guess I’d say that when you look at the start list and you look at the results from the 10 k and the skiathlon, on paper we’re fourth,” Grover said. “Sweden, Finland, Norway they’re definitely ahead of us in terms of the distance results that we’ve seen here all week. So we knew we were sort of an outside chance to be fighting for the bronze and we knew that when we’re successful on the World Cup, it’s because one of those teams has a weak leg.”
A weak leg from Finland, Norway or Sweden — the three teams that finished ahead of the Americans — at least in Thursday’s race, was nowhere to be found for the U.S.
From the start, Kowalczyk, pushed the pace with Falla, Haag and Saarinen in close quarters, while the USST’s Randall worked hard to hold on.
“Unfortunately, we lost some important time there in the beginning,” Randall said. “I know that’s something I’ve got to work on for next year, but it was exciting to know that we were still in the race the whole time and made Sweden and Finland really fight for those medals.”
Randall handed off to Bjornsen in fifth, approximately 16 seconds back from the second, third, and fourth spots. From there, the Americans raced alone, working hard to reel in the racers ahead.
“It’s always hard to have a carrot right in front of you and not go too hard at the beginning,” Bjornsen said. “I think all of us had a hard time with that today, not going too hard to try to catch them right away.”
By the end of her leg, Bjornsen needed another eight seconds from Randall’s time back to catch the third place position. She handed off to Stephen, who would have to make up 23.5 seconds on Sweden’s third leg, Andersson, to contend for the podium.
The young Andersson, however, was putting on a show. And Stephen wasn’t surprised. During the early stages of her ski career, Stephen attended a weeklong camp in Sweden. While there, she’d learn invaluable lessons from countless coaches, one just happening to be Andersson’s father.
“As I was lining up with her today I was just like ‘this is just full circle,’ “Stephen said after. “She’s a damn-good skier.”
That of course didn’t stop Stephen from putting her best foot forward. The American emphasised the areas she knew were her strength, working the hills.
“Part of me wanted to go out and blow [it] out of the water off the bat, but I also knew that these conditions are also a little bit more energy-expending than normal, hard-packed conditions,” Stephen explained.
Halfway through the first lap, Stephen had gained close to seven seconds on Andersson. By the end of the second lap, however, Andersson had regained the ground that she had lost.
“Unfortunately I couldn’t get her,” Stephen said. “But I did what I could out there … and I am very inspired to be on this team again. To watch my teammates give it all out there, it just makes you want to do the same.”
When Stephen handed off to Diggins, the anchor legs for Sweden and Finland were skiing together. Diggins explained that she had hoped Nilsson and Pärmäkoski’s race tactics would provide an opportunity for her to gain on them.
“I saw where we were coming in and I said, my only strategy is to go out as hard as I can and hope that they are playing cat and mouse in the front,” Diggins said. “[I thought] if they’re trying to be all strategic for the final sprint-out, then maybe I can catch them.”
Ultimately the gap proved too large, with Diggins crossing in fourth.
“I wasn’t able to close the gap but I never stopped fighting and neither did my teammates, and I’m really proud of that,” Diggins said.
Canada’s team of Katherine Stewart-Jones, Emily Nishikawa, Cendrine Browne, and Dahria Beatty finished 10th (+4:16.2) for the third-best world champs result of a Canadian women’s relay team. According to a Cross Country Canada press release, this was just the fourth time in the last decade that Canada has fielded a World Championships women’s relay (excluding the Olympics).
At the 2001 World Championships, Beckie Scott, Milane Thériault, Jaime Fortier, and Sara Renner raced to sixth for Canada. Before that, the program’s previous best was eighth at 1989 world champs, also in Lahti.
“I think today we surprised ourselves,” Canadian World Cup coach Ivan Babikov said on Thursday.
“[Katherine Stewart-Jones] skied incredibly that first leg, with everything she could,” he added. “She was ahead of Germany, ahead of Russia, so many really good countries, and after that it was a matter of holding on and it was great.”
Stewart-Jones finished her leg in eighth, just seven-tenths of second behind Germany’s Katharina Hennig in seventh. Though Switzerland and Italy eventually caught the Canadians, the women expressed excitement about the finish and results yet to come.
“This is the first time we’ve fielded a world champs relay in a long time so that’s a huge accomplishment [in itself],” Nishikawa said during an in-person interview. “And then to come 10th … it’s really the beginning of something that’s pretty special.”
“I’m really proud of us,” Browne added. “I think we all skied really strongly today, and very positive for the future.”
— Harald Zimmer, Gerry Furseth, and Alex Kochon contributed