The prolonged, brutal physical demands of the team sprint make the event a fickle friend. Just ask Charlotte Kalla and Anna Haag.
After blowing the doors off the eight other teams in their semifinal, the Swedish women came into the gold-medal round as an irresistible force. But they ran head on into the immovable object of Claudia Nystad and Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle, a pair of veteran German women without the speed for the first round, but with the years and years of hard training needed to be able to ski fast late into the day.
In the last two hundred meters of the finals, Nystad showed that she still has some speed in those 32-year-old legs of hers, dropping Haag in the sprint to take her first Olympic gold since 2002—precisely according to the strategy laid out by their coach, former Norwegian superstar Tor-Arne Hetland.
“He…said that Evi is the motor of our team, and I am the sprinter.” Nystad said. “That was the plan, and it fits exactly.”
In their semifinal heat, the Swedish women had simply skied away from the rest of the field, which included Norway, Slovenia, and the U.S. They won that round by over ten seconds, after slowing down considerably in the stadium on their last lap.
In the finals, they looked to be on their way to a repeat win in the same manner when Kalla set a hard pace from the gun.
As the pack made its way around the first uphill corner, France’s Karine Laurent Philippot got tangled up and went down.
The U.S.’s Caitlin Compton was off to the left of Philippot, and almost made it around unscathed. She said that she had moved to the inside of the turn after seeing an opening.
“Sure enough, the group on the [outside] went down into a little bit of a crash,” she said. “I though, ‘oh, perfect, I missed that.’”
But as one of the fallen women tried to stand up, she took out Compton by stepping on her ski—putting a serious dent in the American medal hopes.
“That pile-up definitely put us back, and kind of changed our game plan from being in the thick of it to having to play catch-up,” Compton said.
Up front, Kalla was stretching things out, with Italy, Germany, and Finland trying to stay close enough to keep her from breaking the race open. Kalla finished her first lap two seconds up on the chasers, which was too little to keep the gap from being swallowed up after the exchange.
Over the next four laps, the racing was tactical, with Sweden, Germany, Italy, and Russia forming a lead group. As they entered the final lap, a smooth tag by Sachenbacher-Stehle left her teammate Nystad with
a small lead over Haag, and the German appeared to put in a surge heading up the initial hill. But Haag fought back, retaking the lead over the top.
Up the final climb, Haag poured it on, doing everything she could do put a gap on Nystad. But the German doggedly held her ground, never letting a gap widen to more than a single meter. Confident in her closing sprint, Nystad knew that all she had to do was keep Haag close.
“I had to focus on the last, long stadium loop,” Nystad said. “That was the plan.”
Nystad actually ended up starting her sprint a little early—before the final bend that led into the finish straight. Halfway through, she said she was out of gas.
“I was on the limit the last sixty meters. At the end, I though everybody could pass me—I felt s—y,” she said. “But nobody came.”
Haag just didn’t have the speed to match Nystad at the finish. She said that could have been because she used too much energy at the start of the heat.
“We fought really hard from the beginning, and that cost us,” said Haag.
Behind the leaders, Russia trailed in uncontested for bronze, while Italy and Norway each followed a few seconds later.
Quietly, since the crash on the first turn, the American women had been moving up, and closed in on the Canadian team just as the pair entered the stadium some 45 seconds after Nystad and Haag.
In a knock-down, drag-out finishing sprint, Kikkan Randall just bested Sara Renner for
sixth place—and bragging rights for the title of fastest women’s sprint team on the continent.
If not for the crash, Randall said that she and Compton had the fitness to compete with Norway and Italy, if not the top three teams.
“It’s too bad we had that bad luck at the beginning, because I would have liked to see if we could have stuck in there,” she said.
For the Germans, it was a nice bookend to a pair of Olympic careers that began with promise eight years ago in Salt Lake City, where the German women won in the distance relay. Sachenbacher-Stehle, especially, has struggled through some rough seasons—she has just two individual World Cup podiums since 2006—but today it all came together again.
“You believe this, you work for this,” Nystad said, “and in the end, it works out, and that feels pretty good.”
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.