Whistler, British Columbia – Heavy falling snow and the ability to swap skis during the race await the field in the final women’s cross-country ski race of the 2010 Olympic Games.
55 women will take to the start line in the 30 km classic mass start event at Whistler Olympic Park. Despite the absence of two of the top skiers, the race should be hotly contested over the 3x10km course.
Petra Majdic (SLO), who has not raced since the sprint race, is obviously not on the start list. And Anna Haag, a winner of two medals thus far – a bronze in the pursuit, and a silver in the team sprint – fell ill after the medal ceremony for the team event and is not yet healthy.
“I am not ready. I have problems with my sickness still and have a little fever and am tired,” Haag said.
The leaves Marit Bjoergen (NOR) and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) as the clear favorites in the race. Bjoergen has gotten stronger as the Games have gone on, and now has three golds and a bronze in four races.
Kowalczyk does not like the rolling Whistler courses, but she can , and the heavy snow is in her favor.
Finland finally broke through with a medal in the relay, and both Aina-Kaisa Saarinen and Virpi Kuitunen are contenders today. Kuitunen has been a bit of a mystery during the Games, racing only the sprint and the relay. She was solid in the relay but not exceptional.
Saarinen has raced more, and fatigue could be an issue, but of the two, she is currently more consistent. Both will be highly motivated after a disappointing Games thus far.
Kristina Smigun-Vaehi (EST) dropped out of the pursuit and did not race the relay. She should be rested and focused.
After that there are a number of women who could breakthrough. Therese Johaug (NOR) and Marianna Longa (ITA) are both skiing well, and Charlotte Kalla (SWE), while a better skater, should never be counted out.
Longa is not making any bold predictions on her expectations: “A good result for me. I don’t know about a medal.”
For the first time ever at the Olympics, skiers will be allowed to change skis during the race. FIS began experimenting with ski-switching two years ago on the World Cup, and it was used at the World Championships in Liberec. In the 30k, women can swap skis up to three times during the race.
This adds an extra element of strategy, and also increases the importance of wax staff.
Swapping skis takes time, but a fresh pair will run faster, and given the challenging and changing conditions at Whistler Olympic Park, kick can be tweaked.
While the course is technically 3x10km, it actually consists of two smaller loops, so skiers will pass through the stadium twice on each “lap.”
The US starts three skiers, Kikkan Randall, Morgan Arritola, and Holly Brooks. Randall has been on fire the last two weeks, and while a 30km classic is definitely not her strongest event, the top-30 is likely and the top-20 within reach.
Neither Arritola and Brooks will be in position for top-30 results. Brooks has struggled her last few races, and told media she is concerned about her health.
Arritola has had a run of average races for her current ability, but there is no sense of an impending breakout performance today.
Sarah Renner leads Canada in her final race. Renner will retire after the Games, and it would be a perfect story for her to go out with a medal. Unfortunately that is not going to happen. Renner can still battle for the top-10, and will likely get it.
Renner does not expect a tactical race, saying, “With the women there is not a lot of tactics. It is usually going as fast as you can. With the men there are more tactics, but I think women just want to work hard all the time.”
Renner sees Bjoergen, Kowalczyk and Longa as the race favorites.
Haag also points to the obvious choices – Bjoergen and Kowalczyk, but also expects good things from her teammate Anna Olsson.
The only other Canadian starter is Madeleine Williams.
1. Marit Bjoergen (NOR) – How can you bet against her?
2. Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) – So strong, and the slow conditions could give her a chance against Bjoergen.
3. Kristina Smigun-Vaehi (EST) – Rested and ready.
4. Therese Johaug (NOR) – Small and quick will be a benefit in today’s conditions.
5. Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (FIN) – She has not skied poorly thus far, and will be in the hunt the whole way. Easily could swap with Smigun-Vaehi.
10. Sarah Renner (CAN) – Great last day for the Canadian veteran.
22. Kikkan Randall (USA) – She is skiing great and that will translate to this distance.
36. Morgan Arritola (USA) – Where she has been all Olympics.
44. Madeleine Williams (CAN) – Getting the experience.
48. Holly Brooks (USA) – Not on her game physically. This will be a long hard race.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.