Liberec, Czech Republic – Aino Kaisa Saarinen (FIN) won the first gold of the 2009 World Championships, skiing to victory in the women’s 10km classic. Sarah Renner placed 9th for Canada, and Kikkan Randall led the US in 26th.
Saarinen started fast and maintained the pace, leading at both intermediate check points. This was the first World Championship medal of her career and first gold in either the World Championships or the Olympics. She did win a bronze in the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Italy.
The 30-year old Finn, currently the overall World Cup leader, just missed a medal in the 2007 World Championships in Sapporo, Japan, finishing 4th in the 30km classic mass start. Saarinen was visibly emotional at the finish, shedding tears as her teammates congratulated her.
“My dream was to win in the world championships, and so I started skiing,” Saarinen said. “And now I did it.”
Significant new snow fell overnight, and continued to come down on and off throughout the race, much to Saarinen’s delight.
“It was my day today. In the morning, when I looked out of the window and saw it was snowing it’s the best weather I could have,” Saarinen said. “I like snow. I knew I would be very hard to beat.”
Marianne Longa (ITA) took the silver, just 4.2 seconds in back of Saarinen. Longa retired for a season in 2005-2006, before coming back stronger than ever, and has no claimed her first ever international medal. She actually trailed third place finisher Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) for much of the race – the two were just .8 seconds apart at 8 kilometers, but a strong finish by Longa pushed her into second.
“The silver medal in this technique is a great success for me. In the last kilometer I pushed all my power because I knew that the silver medal was within reach,” said Longa. “My son was on the course and shouted: ‘Go, go mum.’ – that pushed me even more. It is a great day for me and a dream come true!”
Kowalczyk held onto third, 11.5 seconds behind Saarinen, and just 5.6 seconds ahead of Virpi Kuitunen (FIN) in fourth.
“I’m very happy because this is my first medal at the world championships,” Kowalczyk said. “The track was very hard, with the big uphills and the big downhills. It’s for good athletes. It’s a very good track.”
The defending World Champion in this event, Kateřina Neumannová (CZE), is retired and heads the organizing committee for the the Liberec Championships.
Renner, who finished 5th in the event a the last World Cup, was 1:16 behind Saarinen. While this may have been Renner’s best shot for a medal – she has excelled in the 10km classic in the past – she will have several more opportunities to climb on the podium.
“I really felt like I could have been in the fight for the medals today,” said Renner. “I have set my standards pretty high, but after last week, I know I can be there.
“I know I really should be easier on myself, but I also know that I can be a medal contender,” she added. “I have to be happy with a top-10 for sure, but I just wanted a bit more.”
Randall’s 26th place result was consistent with her distance performance over the last several years. At 62.71 FIS points, the performance did not match her 23rd place in Kuusamo in November, but was still her third-best World Cup distance race of her career. She will now turn her focus to sprinting.
“This race wasn’t a key race for any of our women and they did really well – as well as we hoped they would do,” U.S. Cross Country Head Coach Pete Vordenberg said. “It was a really good start, especially for Kikkan. It’s a great sign for her fitness for the races that are coming up, which are her key races.”
The US started three other skiers. Morgan Arritola finished 40th in her first World Championship/Olympic appearance, 3:04 off the pace. Measured by time back from the winner, this was Arritola’s best performance in her short World Cup career. The 22-year old started slowly, ranking 55th at 3km and 47th at the 8k mark. She consistently moved up throughout the race and finished less than 30 seconds out of the top 30.
“Today is a good sign for the races coming up for her. She’s one of our younger athletes here and the goals for her are a little bit different than they are for Kikkan,” Vordenberg said.
Her teammate Morgan Smyth was next for the US in 51st. Smyth need to race yesterday as well in order to qualify for the today’s race. She also improved her position over the course of the race and crossed the line 3:41.3 seconds behind the winner.
Laura Valaas rounded out the US quartet in 57th, +4:10. 71 women completed the race.
Shayla Swanson followed Renner on the Canadian team, finishing 46th. She was closely followed by teammate Perianne Jones in 48th. This was Swanson’s top World Cup result based on FIS points, marking the first time she cracked the 100 point mark in a World Cup distance event.
– Finland was the only nation with more than one woman in the top 10. They took three of the top 10 spots with Pirjo Muranen in 7th joining Saarinen and Kuitunen.
– Petra Majdic (SLO) had an off day, finishing 15th. Majdic, who was third in the 10km World Cup a week ago, is usually a threat to to win. She is currently second in the overall World Cup standings.
– Norwegian start Marit Bjoergen, who hasn’t raced on the World Cup since the Tour de Ski, finished 16th, well off the pace.
– Norway’s Theresse Johaug, who finished 10th, at age 21 was the youngest competitor in the top 37 finishers.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.