Whistler, British Columbia – Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) gained her third career World Cup victory, skiing to victory in the women’s 15km pursuit. Kowalczyk, who won this same event in Canmore last season, was able to ski away from Italy’s Marianna Longa in the final two kilometers. Longa set a fast pace from the start, quickly breaking apart the pack. Kowalczyk appeared to be struggling at times, but had plenty left on the final lap to secure the victory.
Longa pushed the pace right out of the start, and less than ten minutes into the race, the lead pack was down to four. Longa kept the pressure on, and at the transition to skate, she and Kowalzcyk had a solid 18 second lead on Arianna Follis (ITA).
The race for the top spots turned into three groups of two. After Longa and Kowalczyk, Follis and Valentina Schevchenko (UKR) battled for third, and not far behind, Canadian Sara Renner and German Steffie Boehler gave chase.
Renner gave it her all to remain with the leaders. She hung on for awhile, and was only 7 seconds down and in fourth at 3.5km. But the pace was too fast, and she settled in with Boehler for much of the race.
Longa appeared to be the stronger of the two leaders as the race progressed. Both women are stronger classic skiers, with Kowalzcyk holding a small edge in freestyle. Longa opened a gap of 5 seconds in the transition, forcing Kowalczyk to expend energy catching up. The Italian looked relaxed and strong, while the Pole appeared strained as the two finished the final climb of the second skate lap. But exiting the stadium on the biggest climb of the course, Kowalzcyk dropped the hammer and opened up what amounted to an insurmoutable gap. Longa did not throw in the towel, and battled to the end.
“Our race was pretty fast today, especially the classical part,” said the winner. “The courses does not fit me so well, I prefer tougher courses with long and steep uphills and easier downhills, but I am really happy to get my third World Cup victory here. It was very important for me to compete in these races in Whistler to prepare myself for next year, and to have an idea what kind of courses are waiting for me.”
This was Longa’s first ever World Cup podium. The Italian actually retired several years ago, but has come back stronger than ever.
“I can only say: I am really, really happy and satisfied today. It was my first ever World Cup podium and it is amazing. During the race I lost some energy after leading nearly all the time, and Justyna was then better at the end. The entire Italian team had a great day, and I am sure that we will celebrate this evening.”
Follis pulled away from Schechenko on the last hill to claim third, giving the Italians 1st and 3rd in both the men’s and the women’s events.
“The third place is great! Marianna is stronger in classical skiing, and I feel really happy for her. The courses are not so easy for me and are a bit challenging as I am a good technical skater, and like it when it is a bit flatter.”
Follis’ comment is interesting in that both of the race winners complained that the skate course was too easy.
Renner was unable to overtake Boehler and finished 6th, her best result in several years. Cheered on by a passionate home crowd, Renner continues to improve as she prepared for next year’s Olympics, likely her last year on the circuit.
Renner was the first of seven Canadians in the points (top 30). Shayla Swanson, coming off her first points race in yesterday’s sprint, set a new personal best, finishing 17th, just over three minutes behind the winner. She was closely followed by fellow Canuck Brittany Webster.
The Americans, without a headlining distance skier on the women’s side, also fared well, with US Development team skiers Liz Stehpen and Morgan Arritola finishing 24th and 25 respectively. Both women skied excellent skate legs, ranking 16th and 18th and making up a number of places in the last 7.5km. Stephen picked off 9 spots in that distance, and Arritola 4. Nicole DeYong, one of only two Americans to race both races here, cracked the top 30 for her first ever World Cup points. DeYong finished 30th with a consistent performance, holding her position through both legs.
The finish also marked Stephen’s first World Cup top 30, in only her second start. Arritola fell one place shy of matching her career best 24th set last year in Canmore.
Conditions were excellent, and kick appeared good despite warming temperatures. The largest crowd of the weekend witnessed the women’s race, and the atmosphere was festive.
Racing continues tomorrow with a freestyle Team Sprint.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.