With pursuit champion Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg and sprint champion Hanna Brodin anchoring their respective teams, today’s women’s relay race was primed for a showdown.
Oestberg, a Norwegian, had proven to be one of the strongest distance skiers here at the World Junior Championships after winning the pursuit, while Brodin, a Swede had dominated the sprint. The 3.3k distance was right in between the two disciplines.
They received the tag ten seconds apart, with Oestberg in the lead. By the time they reached the bottom of the main climb here, Brodin had made up the ground, and the two were together. In the middle of the hill, Brodin came around Oestberg to make her move, and for about a minute, she gave it full gas.
Oestberg told FasterSkier afterwards that she didn’t think she would be able to hold on— but she did. And after hammering up the entire hill, Brodin was exhausted. Over the top, Oestberg put in a surge, and left the Swede behind. Coming into the stadium, she had a lead that looked insurmountable.
But as the Norwegian neared the finish, one more challenger turned up: Finland’s Krista Lahteenmaki. Chasing ferociously, Lahteenmaki had nearly closed a thirty-second gap to Oestberg, and she passed Brodin like she was standing still, relegating the Swedish team to a bronze medal. And by the time Oestberg made the turn onto the finishing straight, Lahteenmaki was only a few meters behind, and closing hard.
For fifteen seconds, the crowd held its collective breath, waiting to see if Lahteenmaki could do it. It came down to the final meters. In the end, Lahteenmaki needed just a few more, as Oestberg held her off by 0.5 seconds.
“I would have been thinking about that for a long time, if I hadn’t managed to win,” Oestberg said.
As the Scandinavian battle unfolded at the front of the race, the U.S. women were less than a minute back, just behind heavyweights Russia and Germany. At the finish, Jessie Diggins gave a huge effort to nearly top France in the sprint for seventh, collapsing in pain and exhaustion as soon as she crossed the line. The American team of Diggins, Sophie Caldwell, Caitlin Patterson, and Joanne Reid ended up eighth, just fifteen seconds from Kazakhstan in fourth.
The team was one spot back of their finish last year, but Matt Whitcomb, the head junior coach here, said that the result wasn’t indicative of the way the women skied.
“The actual performance was better this year,” he said.
The Canadians struggled today, ending in 14th, three and a half minutes back. Dahria Beatty’s first leg left the team in eighth, but the rest of her teammates—Heidi Widmer, Marlis Kromm, and Rebecca Reid—couldn’t hold on.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.