Liberec, Czech Republic – The Finnish team defended their World Championship title in the women’s 4×5 kilometer relay this morning, behind a strong anchor leg from Aino-Kaisa Saarinen. Germany took the silver in a sprint finish with Sweden.
The favored Finns appeared to be on pace for an easy victory, on par with the Team Sprint yesterday. Pirjo Muranen, the bronze medalist in the individual sprint, skied the first leg. She tagged off in second, 4.3 seconds back of Poland, led by Justyna Kowalczyk, a strong position as she was 10 seconds up on third place Russia and 13 up on Norway. Poland, despite the strength of Kowalczyk, does not have the strength to contest for a top relay spot at this point.
Veteran Virpi Kuitunen headed out for the second leg, and quickly buried the field, easily overtaking Poland and extending the lead to 31 seconds over second place Norway at the tag. With the race half over and Saarinen waiting in the anchor spot, it appeared that the rest of the field was relegated to battling for Silver. But Riitta Liisa Roponen struggled mightily. Her leg time wsa 14th out of 15 teams, over a minute back. But fortunately for the Finn’s the deficit at the final exchange was just eight seconds to Norway.
Norway was led by consistent, if unspectacular, skiing from Marit Bjoergen, Therese Johaug, and Kristin Stoermer Steira. 18-year old phenom Marthe Kristofferesen skied the anchor leg, but was unable to maintain position. She was overtaken by Saarinen, and eventually Germany and Sweden as well.
Meanwhile, Saarinen guaranteed her fourth medal, and third gold, of these Championships, opening a gap, and cruising to a 13 second win.
“It is amazing – my third gold,” said Saarinen. “The entire team did a great job and I was able to enjoy my round on the top of the last uphill – it is a great feeling. I can really smile with three gold medals, but on Saturday is the last race and I will be fighting there.”
Germany’s silver medal push was led by young biathlete Miriam Goessner. Goessner skied the third leg, taking the handoff in 6th, 1:11 behind the leader, and 40 seconds out second place. Goessner, with an incredible performance, moved the team up to fourth, and within 16 seconds of the lead. Veteran Claudia Nystad took over and was able to hold off a hard charging Charlotte Kalla of Sweden for the silver.
Goessner, just 18 years old, enjoyed her cross-country experience, but will continue to focus on biathlon. “To get a medal today is great. I felt really good during my entire race, and was able to push hard. It is also great for me to ski with such big names like Kristin Steira. The Cross-Country women’s team is great and I also have to say thank you to Manuela Henkel – I was skiing today on her skis. But I will not change to Cross-Country – Biathlon will be my sport.”
Kalla also had an excellent race, bringing Sweden back to the medal hunt from 6th place. She made up 40 seconds on Norway and 20 on Germany, catching the two team on the last climb to set up the fight for silver.
“It was amazing,” said Kalla. “I felt great and was able to push hard. I saw Claudia in front of me and also the Norwegian, and then I just attacked on the last uphill. We were fighting hard but at the end, Claudia was stronger.”
The US team of Kikkan Randall, Morgan Arritola, Liz Stephen nd Caitlin Compton finished 14th in the 15 team field. Both Randall, who was racing in her third race in three days, and Stephen had strong races. Randall scrambled tagging off in 6th place, 27 seconds down on the lead, and just 14 seconds behind Norwegian Marit Bjoergen in 4th. Arritola was not able to match her performance in the pursuit, ranking 14th in the second leg, but still handed off to Stephen with the team in 9th place.
Despite posting the 8th best leg time, Stepehn dropped the team one place to 10th. Her time was just 20 seconds slower than Steira of Norway.
Compton took over on the final leg, but struggled through the 5km course, and the team slipped back to 14th place.
Canada did not field a team.
– Japan finished a solid 7th, led by Masako Ishida’s excellent second leg. Ishida posted the second fastest time, just 10 seconds behind Kuitunen.
– Sylwia Jaskowiec gave Poland 50% of a medal capable team along with Kowalczyk. Her third leg was the seconds fastest, only 4.3 seconds behind Goessner. But the other two Polish skiers were both 13th in their legs.
– Italy, a potential medal contender, was foiled by a poor first leg by Antonella Confortolla. She lost over a minute to the leaders, and the Italians were never able to recover despite strong legs from Marianna Longa and Arianna Follis. They ended in 5th.
– The home Czech team finished 13th, 7 seconds ahead of the US.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.