Whistler, British Columbia – Charlotte Kalla (SWE) skied to a 6.6 second victory in the women’s 10km freestyle under cloudy skies at Whistler Olympic Park on Monday morning.
Kalla, skiing in her first Olympics, entered the race as the favorite, and did not disappoint. She held a 9.4 second lead after 5km, and held on to beat comeback-kid Kristina Smigun-Vaehi (EST).
“It feels crazy right now,” said Kalla at the finish line. “I cannot believe I am a gold medalist.”
Marit Bjoergen (NOR) rode a strong last lap to claim the final podium spot, and the bronze medal, 15 .9 seconds behind Kalla and just 5 seconds ahead of 4th place finisher Anna Haag of Sweden.
Kalla, the 2008 Tour de Ski Champion, claimed her first individual Olympic or World Championship medal with her performance, and cemented her spot as one of the top women in the World. She has bounced back well from several disappointing seasons where she was plagued by illness.
“I felt good the whole race – I just tried to focus on my plan and be patient,” she said.
Kalla is an excellent climber, and prefers hard hilly courses, but she had no complaints about the rolling Whistler track.
Smigun-Vaehi, a double gold-medalist in 2006, retired two years ago to have a child, and just returned to full time training last spring. She raced several World Cup races early in the season, showing good form, but then focused on Olympic training. The move obviously paid off as she was nearly good enough for gold.
Leading up to the Games, she copied her training plan from the ’06 Olympics, and did not seem bothered by her lack of international competition this year. As a relatively early starter in the seeded group, Smigun-Vaehi had less information than some of her competitors.
“Everybody was chasing me – it was very difficult as I had no information [splits].”
After 5km, she and Bjoergen were nearly tied, sitting in 2nd and 3rd, just .4 seconds apart.
Bjoergen started fine, but struggled somewhat in the middle part of the race, according to Norwegian Coach Egil Kristiansen. Her strong finish led her to the podium, and a medal.
“It is very good for me. It has been a long time since I was on the podium,” she told reporters. Kristiansen seconded that, expressing satisfaction with the result.
“Today she was a little bit nervous because it has been a while since she has met the best skiers, but she had a good race. We want the gold, but today with bronze, we are satisfied,” concluded Kristiansen.
Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) finished 5th, 21.7 seconds out, and just 6 seconds off the podium. Like Kalla, Kowalczyk prefers hilly courses – perhaps even more so.
“I was really close to the podium – I know that at the Olympics, number 4, number 5 is not important as a medal, but my shape is quiet good, and on this track, 5th place is quite good for me,” Kowalczyk said.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.