Two days after winning the 100th gold medal in Norway’s Winter Olympic history, Marit Bjoergen wasn’t ready to stop. She added to that tally Friday, skiing to an impressive victory in the women’s 15km Pursuit at Whistler Olympic Park.
Bjoergen put on a powerful move on the second-to-last climb of the race, leaving her competition in the dust. She was able to celebrate down the finish stretch in front of the cheering crowd while the battle for silver played out behind her.
Anna Haag (SWE) won that battle, capturing her first Olympic medal, and erasing the disappointment of a fourth place finish in the sprint. Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) out-lunged Kristin Stoermer Steira (NOR) at the line for the bronze, continuing Steira’s remarkable run of Olympic fourth place finishes.
Conditions were excellent for the third women’s cross-country race of the 2010 Olympics. With a warm sun beating down, but cold temperatures overnight, the atmosphere was festive, and the skiing fast.
The pace was fast from the start, with Kowalczyk and Bjoergen pushing on the first climbs. The pack spread out quickly, and a lead group of fourteen women formed up as the race moved through the stadium after the first classic lap.
The attrition continued, and by the five kilometer mark, only eight women could maintain the blistering pace. Charlotte Kalla (SWE), the gold medalist in the 15km, tripped and fell when switching tracks in the stadium, losing contact. She would never get back in the race.
Within the group of leaders, Bjoergen and Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (FIN) looked strongest. Saarinen was looking for the first Finnish cross-country medal of the games, and appeared to be on a mission.
The chase pack continued to lose ground as the halfway mark and the transition to skate approached. Saarinen had a blistering exchange, leaving the transition zone on her skate skis 20 meters out front. But Bjoergen brought the pack right back.
Norway was in excellent position for a medal, maybe two, with Bjoergen, Steira and Theresse Johaug making up 40% of the frontrunners. The trio took advantage of their numbers, trading leads and working together. “We had really good teamwork today,” Johaug told FasterSkier after the race.
Coming through the stadium for the last lap, Steira and Bjoergen led Kowalczyk, Haag and Johaug, with the rest beginning to fall off the back.
Between kilometers 12 and 13, on the biggest climb of the course, everything changed.
Saarinen, powerful and strong to this point, ran out of gas. Johaug and Italian Marianna Longa were in the same boat, and by 13km, they were over 30 seconds out.
So two Norwegians, a Swede and a Pole set about deciding the medals. Steira attacked first on the second to last climb, but quickly pulled over, letting Bjoergen take over. She didn’t miss a beat and started her punishing move. She immediately had a gap, and the race for gold was over. Her nine second margin of victory is misleading as she celebrated over the last 100 meters.
“When Kristin attacked on the uphill, she opened a gap and wanted me to go ahead,” said Bjoergen. “I went by and heard I had 20 seconds with one kilometer to go, and then I knew that this was my day.”
“Marit was really strong on the second-to-last uphill,” added Haag. “The three of us [Kowalczyk, Haag and Steira] was a little bit tired and we did not have the strength to fight for the win. We just stayed strong and had to fight among the three of us.”
Meanwhile, Haag looked to be tiring more than the others, barely hanging on to Kowalczyk and Steira. The best sprinter of the three, she needed to stay in contact. She did just that as they crested the last hill and descended into the stadium. In 4th swinging around the big downhill corner, she immediately attacked when they hit the flat, pulling into 2nd before the stadium hairpin. She showed off her sprinting prowess holding on to the silver position.
Steira pulled ahead of Kowalczyk, a notoriously bad finisher, and appeared to be headed for her first Olympic medal. Kowalczyk, stubborn as always, wouldn’t go away, came back even, and won the lunge to the line by no more than two inches.
There was a long wait before the photo finish was announced, with Steira celebrating wildly at one point, when officials initially announced her in 3rd. But the photo finish video showed Kowalczyk clearly, if marginally, ahead.
“It is extra hard to be number four when I’ve been told that I won the bronze medal, only to have it changed. But in the pictures, I’m behind,” Steira said after the race.
In five Olympic individual races, Steira has now been 4th a remarkable four times.
“When I was number four in Torino, I was actually quite happy. Now it’s bitter,” Steira told Langrenn.com, with tears in her eyes.
Kowalczyk was thrilled with her medal, crying on the podium, and telling media that she was surprised to be in the top-3 given her strengths do not play to the Whistler course, with its many transitions and tight corners. She repeated what she has many times before. “I prefer the uphills…”
She also had a long wait for the results to be announced, but when asked if this was the toughest minuets of her life, she laughed in disbelief, saying “The spot is very important, but not that important.”
Gracious as always, whether in victory or defeat, she noted Steira’s string of Olympic disappointments. “I am very sorry for Kristin. She has been number four many times. That is not nice.”
But while the drama came in the battle for second, Bjoergen was the woman of the day. She became the first dual gold medalist in Vancouver, and the first athlete with three medals total. She looked very strong and in control throughout the race.
She said she took it a little easier on the second lap, not leading, and conserving energy. “When we switched to skate, the speed was not so high,” leaving her with the strength to ski away at the end.
From 2004 to 2007, Bjoergen won the overall World Cup twice and finished 2nd twice. But she struggled the next two years and made significant changes to her training entering this season.
She focused on training, competing less in preparation for the Olympics. She sat out the Tour de Ski, and while she found it tough to watch it on television, she is very happy about that choice now.
Last summer she increased her training volume, decreased the intensity and worked hard on her skate technique.
Said Norwegian Team Leader Age Skinstad “The main reason [for her success at the Olympics] is all the hard work she has done since we were here in April last year. And the choices that she has made regarding training and recovery since then has been the biggest thing that has mattered. For Marit today everything was perfect.”
Added Swedish coach Joakim Abrahamsson “We are happy for Marit. She has been the best for many years, so it is time for her [to win a gold].”
“I don’t think anyone could beat Marit today,” a still happy Haag said at the post-race press conference.
Haag was her own story. The Swedish all-rounder has been in the shadow of Charlotte Kalla for most of her World Cup career, and while she has two podium finishes on the World Cup, she had never finished better than third. That changed today.
“She showed that she is a fighter in every moment,” said coach Abrahamsson. “She won’t let the medal pass her by so that was very strong of her. She is very strong mentally – she never gives up.”
To most observers, it didn’t look like she would make the podium, hanging on by a thread on the last climbs. “On the last hill I didn’t think I could make it. I don’t know where the strength came from.”
“She looked like she was suffering,” said boyfriend and decent skier in his own right, Emil Joensson. “It looked like oh no, fourth again, but she got good speed and the waxers did a good job, and she had good speed at the finish. It was great!”
He was confident in Haag’s chances. “She has been strong and so cool, so relaxed before the race. I felt like it could be a great day, and it was. This was good.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.