Lightning. Bears. Concrete walls.
Those are a few things that might be able to stop Norway’s Marit Bjoergen right now. Mere mortals from Italy, Finland, and Germany? Fat chance.
Taking the tag from Kristin Stormer Steira with Italy hot on her heels, Bjoergen laid down a blazingly fast final leg, dropping Sabina Valbusa on the very first climb. She skied away, uncontested, to her third gold medal of these Games—Norway’s first in the women’s relay in 26 years.
The real battle unfolded behind, as the chase pack of Finland, Sweden, and Germany quickly swallowed up Valbusa. Without a single medal for her country from the 2010 Games thus far, Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (FIN) was out for blood, driving the pace hard for her two laps of the 2.5 kilometer course. Only Germany’s Claudia Nystad could hang on, and she passed the Finn on their final lap to take silver, while Saarinen held on for the bronze.
How it Unfolded
With Bjoergen anchoring, Norway may have been the favorite, but their coaches couldn’t take anything for granted until Vibeke Skofterud made it through the first leg unscathed.
Italy and Germany led things out up the first big climb, with the pack still together. Kikkan Randall was skiing in the second row, just next to Skofterud.
Skiing aggressively, Randall still sat in the lead group on her second lap, then used a fast pair of skis to gap the rest of the field on the course’s biggest downhill. Anna Olsson (SWE), Skofterud, and Katrin Zeller (GER) made up the ground on the climb before the stadium, but Randall came into the stadium with the leaders, tagging off to Holly Brooks in fourth place—just ten seconds back.
“I knew that if I could put together a good race, I could bring our team in near the front,” she said. “It’s fun to be ahead of those teams that you know can win medals.”
Brooks didn’t have the legs today, though, and she quickly fell off the back. She said afterwards that she’s worried her health problems from the summer may have resurfaced, and that she has spoken to the team’s doctor about doing some testing to find out what’s wrong.
“It was really fun having Kikkan come in in such a strong position,” Brooks said. “There was a little pressure going into that, but I just know that can ski a lot faster than I’m skiing right now, and it’s pretty frustrating.”
At the front, Norway, Italy, and Germany were still together, while Sweden’s Magdalena Pajala was dropped going up the big climb on her first lap.
As the three leaders duked it out up ahead, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk was working her way back from the 18-second deficit she’d inherited from her teammate, Kornelia Marek. Echoing yesterday’s spectacular second leg by Lukas Bauer (CZE), Kowalczyk made up all the ground Marek had lost, then just kept on going.
When Kowalczyk caught them, Marianna Longa (ITA), Therese Johaug (NOR), and Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle (GER) couldn’t hold the pace, and the lead group shattered. Kowalczyk’s leg was nearly thirty seconds faster than the next closest, and she tagged off to Paulina Maciuszek with a ten-second lead.
Which promptly evaporated. Maciuszek was no match for the power of Norway’s Kristin Stormer Steira and Italy’s Silvia Rupil, as that pair caught her and dropped her almost in the same breath.
Meanwhile, after a miserable first leg, Finland’s Riitta-Liisa Roponen had worked her way back to a chase group, which included Sweden, Germany, and France. Led by Charlotte Kalla (SWE)—who turned in the fastest split of the leg—that group stayed within striking distance of Steira and Rupil, coming through into the final exchange just fifteen seconds behind.
But with Bjoergen anchoring, the most any of the trailing teams could hope for was silver or bronze. While Italy and Norway came into the exchange together, Bjoergen was gone before Valbusa could say “arrivederci.” Bjoergen gapped the Italian going up the first climb out of the stadium, and was off to her third gold of the Games.
“In the first climb I took five seconds, and I knew my skis were good and my body was good,” she said. “After the first lap I had 27 seconds, and I knew that this was going to be our day.”
Despite coming to a full stop before the finish to pick up a Norwegian flag—and skiing the last hundred meters without poles—Bjoergen still had the fastest time of her leg.
After being dropped by Bjoergen, Valbusa, in second, was fading hard. The chase group behind her was gaining, led by a ferocious Saarinen. As the Finn V2-ed her way up the course’s big climbs, it didn’t seem like there was any way that Germany’s Claudia Nystad or Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter could hold on, and indeed, Ingemarsdotter came off on the last lap, just as the trio caught and passed Valbusa. But Nystad hung tough, just like she did when she was battling Charlotte Kalla (SWE) for gold in the team sprint earlier this week.
Nystad wasn’t struggling—on the contrary, she said she was comfortable sitting in and saving energy while Saarinen worked herself to the ground.
Halfway through their leg, though, the German could sense that her rival was waning.
“In the second lap, she wasn’t skiing the same…I had enough energy to go by,” Nystad said. “The next decision was when.”
On one of the final corners, Saarinen was a little unsteady, and Nystad seized the opportunity, powering by to steal the silver and relegate the Finns to bronze.
Anchored by Caitlin Compton, the U.S. trailed in for twelfth place. Like Brooks, Compton said that she wasn’t at her best today.
“I struggled to find the speed and the snow for the glide—it just felt like one of those wet, sloppy days,” she said.
The Americans finished 3:38 down, and the Canadian team of Dasha Gaiazova, Perianne Jones, Chandra Crawford, and Madeleine Williams was another minute back, in 14th.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.