Liberec, Czech Republic – Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) won the women’s 15km pursuit at the Nordic World Championships in Liberec. American Liz Stephen finished 15th.
Kowalczyk claimed her second medal in two races at the Championships. She won the bronze in Thursday’s 10km classic. Kowalczyk edged out Norweigan Kristin Stoermer Steira by 1.7 seconds. Aino Kaisa Saarinen (FIN), the gold medalist in the 10k took the bronze, +8.0.
A lead group, consisting of the top three and Marianna Longa (ITA) and Valentina Schevchenko (UKR) broke away from the field just after the 5km mark. Schechenko was the first to fall off the back, at 11km, with Longa dropping the pace not long after, setting up the battle for the gold. Longa ultimately claimed the 4th spot, +21.5, with Schechenko in 5th, +44.2.
Kowalczyk was ecstatic at the finish, and grateful to Steira who pushed the pace for much of the race.
“Kristin, thank you very much- you worked really hard during the entire race. We both know that we aren’t very good in the finish sprint so we tried to make the decision before. At 10 km, I was thinking that I am tired and Kristin is so strong, but on the last uphill I saw that Kristin was tired as well. I pushed hard on the last 300 meters. 2 years ago I lost the medal in finish; today I closed my eyes and pushed.
“Tomorrow I am going to back home to Poland – Shopping and celebrating. I will stay just for two days and coming back for relay and 30km races. This morning, I was thinking that today it will be a big fight with Kristen, Aino-Kaisa and Valentina Shevchenko. In 1978, Poland won a gold medal in Cross-Country at the World Championships, so it’s a very important victory for me.”
Saarinen stayed close to the top two, but was unable to maintain direct contact over the last kilometers and was not a factor in the final sprint.
Said Saarinen, “It is amazing; it was my best result ever in pursuit, so I am really happy. Of course when I started the race I decided to compete for the victory, but today, there were two girls faster than me. I think I got some extra energy from my previous medal and I think that my skiing today was relaxed. I didn’t feel pressure anymore and I think I enjoyed the race.”
This was Steira’s fourth World Championship medal, and third in the pursuit race.
“I had a good day today and I am very satisfied with my race today and the silver medal. I was afraid of Justyna’s sprint. I tried, but half way down the finish stretch, I saw it was going to be silver today.”
Stephen turned in the best major international performance of her young career, finishing 15th, +1:57. A stronger skater at this point, Stephen held a solid position in the middle of the pack for the classic leg, hitting the transition in 28th place. She immediately began moving up, and ultimately posted the 7th fastest skate time on the day.
“I tend to try to hang with the masses in the classic portion, then really turn it on in the skate when people are starting to fade,” Stephen said.
She finished just behind defending overall World Cup Champion, and 2009 Tour de Ski winner Virpi Kuitunen (FIN), and ahead of Norweigan star Marit Bjoergen.
“It’s been the experience of a lifetime. The more we get to race over here, the more normal it becomes and it’s fun to know we can mix it up with the best,” a bubbly Stephen said after her race.
“I had really good skis and spent most of my warmup testing out skis. It worked out well. I was able to ski really relaxed and came in mid pack. Then I worked my way through in the skate, trying to pick off people as I went,” she added.
Her teammate Morgan Arritola also had an excellent race, finishing 32nd, +2:56.
“I’m so excited. Liz and Morgan skied well. I am proud of how they raced and couldn’t be happier,” U.S. Cross Country Head Coach Pete Vordenberg said. “It’s been a great Championships so far.”
The two are scheduled to race the 4x4km relay as well.
Caitlin Compton also race for the US, finishing 59th.
Canada was led by Sarah Renner in 21st. Renner was 9th in the 10km classic, and while she continues to ski well, she has made it clear that she will not be satisfied with anything less than a medal.
Daria Gaiazova in 47th and Shayla Swanson, 48th, joined Renner for the Canadians.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.