If those pesky NBC producers were still searching for that perfect feel-good story, they sure got it today.
After a horrifying crash in her warm-up for the women’s classic sprint at the Vancouver Olympics, Slovenia’s Petra Majdic was in so much pain that she could barely breath. But somehow, she still found the strength and courage to stay with the best skiers in the world, winning a bronze medal behind Norway’s Marit Bjoergen and Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk.
“For her, it was gold,” Bjoergen said.
Majdic had made today’s sprint her focus for these Games, after some disappointing results in Torino in 2006. She sat out Monday’s 10k skate, in which she had an outside shot for another medal, in order to be better prepared.
When she slid off course this morning and fell three meters down a ledge, breaking a ski and both of her poles, it initially appeared that Majdic’s Olympics would be over.
She missed her start time as she was being treated, screaming to be taken outside so that she could race.
When she finally got there, officials granted Majdic a position at the back of the pack, and she somehow fought her way to 19th place in the qualifier, helped along by sympathetic fans and coaches.
“It was the first time that all coaches from all nations were cheering for me,” she said.
After a visit to the hospital for an ultrasound (no breaks, but a “serious punch on the muscle”), and some serious painkillers, Majdic then had to ski through two heats into the finals, sneaking in as a lucky loser after fourth place in her semifinal.
She trailed Bjoergen and Kowalczyk in the medal round, making a dogged effort to latch on to them as the trio entered the stadium. Despite her strong double-pole, though, Majdic couldn’t maintain contact—though she had just enough left to hold off Sweden’s Anna Olsson.
After the finish, Majdic fell to the ground and remained there, limp and motionless, as she was tended to by medics and her coaches. She had to be carried away, and was still in visible pain during the post-race press conference. She said that she probably wouldn’t be able to compete in the team sprint on Monday.
“She’s crazy,” said Katja Vesnar, Majdic’s teammate. “She really showed how much this means to her. I think if that accident hadn’t happened to her, she could win easily—she was so strong today.”
Despite Vesnar’s hyperbole, though, it was clear that even a full-strength Majdic would have had her hands full with Bjoergen.
The Norwegian was untouchable, easily winning her first two heats before a showdown in the finals with that wiry Pole, Justyna Kowalczyk.
Kowalczyk won last week’s sprint in Canmore by a mile, and also was unchallenged in the earlier rounds.
She and Bjoergen matched each other stride for stride on the final uphill, with Kowalczyk emerging in the lead going over the top. But on the ensuing downhill corner on the way into the stadium, Bjoergen caught the cautious Kowalczyk with an aggressive pass on the inside, taking a lead that she never relinquished. It was Norway’s first gold medal in the Olympics since 2002, which should relieve the pressure from a harried coaching and waxing staff after a tough opener Monday.
With some added pressure on her shoulders after just one of her teammates qualified for the heats in the men’s race, Kikkan Randall (USA) outperformed her own expectations with an eighth place finish—one spot better than her result in the skate sprint in Torino, and the best in American women’s Olympic history.
Her quarterfinal had her matched up with a tough bunch, including Bjoergen, Norway’s Astrid Jacobsen, and Slovenia’s Vesna Fabjan. After a slow start, Randall was able to make up ground with some strong double-poling in the stadium, finishing third and advancing as a lucky loser based on a fast time in her heat. Starting in the first quarterfinal of the afternoon, Randall may have been helped by rapidly-warming temperatures, which seemed to slow down the skiing as the day wore on.
In the semis, the Alaskan again had to face off with Bjoergen and Jacobsen, as well as Italian Magda Genuin. Bjoergen took off from the gun, and Randall was left behind after being slow out of the gate, which she said she struggled with.
“It was fast from the get-go—I need to work on my starts a little bit,” she said.
Randall looked like she was heading for last place in her heat, but then pulled it together for the final climb, passing Virpi Kuitunen and Natalia Korosteleva by the finish and even closing in on Jacobsen.
There was a chance for Randall to move on as a lucky loser with her fourth place in that semi, but the next one was faster.
Randall said afterwards that her goal for the day was a top-12, and she seemed pleased to better that.
“All season I’ve been feeling like there’s one gear missing, and it showed up at just the right time,” she said. “What a fun day out there.”
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.