Whistler, British Columbia – Pouring rain, heavy snow, back to pouring rain, classic Whistler weather, and no one was more happy than Justyna Kowalczyk. She plowed her way through the muck to earn the first Polish gold in Olympic cross-country ski history.
Kowalczyk’s Olympics to date had hardly been poor. She won the silver in the sprint, bronze in the pursuit, and skied well in the 15km, and has made no bones about the fact that these courses do not suit her.
But the best female skier in the world over the last two years could hardly be satisfied with a single medal, and a silver at that.
She responded to a furious attack by Marit Bjoergen at the 22km mark, coming back from a 30-meter deficit, and the two skied the last 5km together. Neither could get away, and it all came down to the final 100 meters – the two women charging neck and neck toward the line, 29.9 kilometers down, and still no edge either way.
Finally, with just 20 meters to go, Kowalczyk crept ahead, Bjoergen switching to classic striding in desperation. But her fate was sealed – the gold to Kowalczyk and a silver for Bjoergen, an amazing 5th medal joining her three golds and a bronze.
Two hours before race time, it was raining heavily in downtown Whistler, meaning snow a few hundred meters higher at Whistler Olympic Park, at least briefly. By 11:00 though, it was just rain, falling relentlessly, soaking the already soft track, and making the 38 degrees feel substantially colder.
Classic waxing for the day would be challenging, especially with specter of a return to snowfall hanging low over the stadium. But for the first time at the Olympics, racers would be allowed to switch skis – three times during the race. This added an additional element of strategy to the race. Switching skis potentially means faster skis, especially in the warm wet conditions, but each swap takes time that must be made up.
The rolling Whistler course skied harder than usual with greatly reduced rest due to the slow conditions. Kowalczyk led out early pushing a moderate pace. At several points over the first five kilometers the large lead pack stretched, but never broke, always coming back together on the gradual terrain.
There isn’t much more to say about the first half of the race – other than it was miserable, at least from a spectator’s standpoint, cold and wet, the rain showing no sign of stopping. Several top skiers opted for early ski switches, but they quickly closed back on the pack ending any potential drama.
At the halfway mark, a strong pack of a dozen skiers remained at the front, including a trio of Norwegians – Bjoergen, Kristin Stoermer Steira and Therese Johaug as well as Kowalckyk, Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, Charlotte Kalla, Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle and Marianna Longa.
The action heated up as the race moved back through the stadium at the 20-kilometer mark. Kowalczyk, Bjoergen and Saarinen all switched skis and Steira took advantage. She attacked out of the stadium, and continued to push up the big climb.
Steira’s attack looked strong, but Saarinen said that she wasn’t concerned.
With ten long kilometers still to go in the race—and a long flat and downhill section approaching—the lightweight Steira didn’t pose too much of a threat.
The Finn proved correct as Steira’s teammate Bjoergen quickly countered and closed back up. However, the charge did have the effect of finally splintering the group.
After bridging up Bjoergen sat on Steira’s tails for 500 meters before launching her own attack, and what an attack it was.
It looked like she was skiing almost as hard as in her gold medal heat in the sprint. She went by Steira like her teammate was standing still, then continued on her own.
But Kowalczyk refused to go away. More relaxed in her skiing, it didn’t seem like she was working nearly hard enough to keep up. But according to Bjoergen, the gap never made it over six seconds.
“I knew that I had to go fast…because six seconds is not too much,” she said.
For a time the two remained even, Bjoergen unable to extend the 20-meter lead, and Kowalczyk’s efforts to close stuck in neutral.
But slowly but surely the Pole crept up, Bjoergen, checking over her should several times.
By the time they reached the stadium at 25 k, Kowalczyk had done what nobody else here had been able to do in a mass start race: catch Bjoergen.
Saarinen and Steira staged their own surge, unnoticed as the leaders stole the spotlight. They had no chance of regaining contact with Bjoergen, but maintained a furious pace, the bronze medal a fine consolation.
At that point, even though she remained in the lead for the next three kilometers, Bjoergen had recognized that it was time for her to pull back a bit and recover, so that she would have some fuel left for a final sprint.
Bjoergen lead Kowalczyk up and out of the stadium, neither stopping for new skis. In just over two kilometers, the pair had opened a gap of a nearly minute on the rest of the field.
Saarinen and Steira came through next, clear of the rest of the chasers. Saarinen stopped to change skis for the third time and Steira took the opportunity to attack once again.
Saarinen acknowledged that the switch was potentially a bit “risky.” But she said afterwards that once she had made the decision before the race to change skis three times, she never considered deviating from that plan—even when locked in a duel with Steira.
Despite the temptation to ski right through the exchange and follow the Norwegian up the first climb, Saarinen said that she had seen enough races come down to the final downhill into the stadium to know that switching skis would be worth it.
“It was the only thing I should do there,” she said. “It’s better to have good glide when you come to the stadium.”
Steira said she had seized the opportunity to make a move, but that in retrospect, she probably could have used a fresh pair of boards herself. Her glide, she said, wasn’t as good on her last lap.
But in the moment, Steira’s decision seemed prescient. Saarinen, hands frozen, struggled to get her bindings clipped on. She started out of the transition area only to lose a ski, dropping more time to Steira as she retreated to attach it.
Saarinen ended up back in 7th, 16 seconds in back of the Norwegian.
Meanwhile, at the front, regardless of what she said after the race, it didn’t look like Bjoergen backed the pace off much. Kowalczyk content on Bjoergen’s tails, dropped off the pace only on the downhill corners.
The rain had finally stopped and the 4,000 fans packed into the stadium area waited with bated breath for the pair to emerge from the woods for the final time. Would it be Kowalczyk or Bjoergen with the legs for a final attack?
The pace remained fast, but Kowalczyk finally shifted into a higher gear, making the pass with just one kilometer to go. Bjoergen wasn’t going anywhere however, and they hit the last climb with fury, matching stride for stride.
Going up the final pitch before dropping into the stadium for the sprint, Kowalczyk and Bjoergen were glued together. Kowalczyk led, but Bjoergen was all but standing on her tails—not giving an inch.
But going over the top, Kowalczyk found just a single ounce more, drawing on the reserves built up by hundreds of hours of training and countless races. She got a few meters on Bjoergen as the pair crested the rise, which widened as the two swooped down the final corner into the stadium.
Bjoergen closed the gap with some furious double poling on the backstretch, then swung out from behind Kowalczyk on the finishing straight. The two drew even, then Bjoergen pulled ahead, then Kowalczyk, and then they were even again. But over the last 20 meters, Kowalczyk edged a few inches forward, and Bjoergen, despite switching to some frantic striding, had no answer.
Bjoergen said afterwards that to win, she needed to be at the front on the last descent, since the slower snow in the outside track kept her from swinging alongside Kowalczyk until the homestretch..
“One track is faster than the other, before the last 100 meters,” she said. “Had I been first, maybe I could take the gold, but today, Kowalczyk was stronger.”
Said Kowalczyk “I am happy and I am tired. It is great to be Olympic champion.”
While Kowalczyk and Bjoergen recovered in the finish area, Saarinen hammered down the finish to take bronze. She caught Steira two kilometers into the final 5km lap, bringing Sachenbacher Stehle and Therese Johaug with her. Steira continued to fight and with Saarinen slipping badly on the big climbs, she pulled back into the lead.
But Saarinen’s fresh skis were faster, and on the easier terrain, she quickly pulled away. The skis were too much for Steira to overcome, and her dream of an individual Olympic medal came to an end.
She dropped back to 8th, with Sachenbacher-Stehle taking 4th. Masako Ishida (JPN) staged a late attack to move up to 5th, her best-ever Olympic result.
Despite her low profile, Ishida was gunning for a medal. She finished 3rd last year in this same event at the Trondheim World Cup, and she spent the day within the top-10.
Kalla was next in 6th – a very good race for the Swede, and Johaug capped a strong Olympics in 7th.
“It was a really great race,” said a glowing Sachenbacher-Stehle. “I did not expect it would be such a great day. The start of the season was not so good for me. I did not expect a good Olympics, but now they have been very good. I have two medals and a 4th place. Now I am very happy. “
Sachenbacher-Stehle noted she had very good skis at the end helping her to a strong finish. “I realized during that race that I might have a shot for a medal. I came up short, but I am so happy about this 4th place.”
Johaug was also pleased saying, “I’m really satisfied with the race today. It was really tough tough conditions, but I fight.”
Johaug called the race “special” noting the accordion action of the pack for the first half. “We would spread out, then catch up – up and down,” she said.
Canada’s Sarah Renner wrapped up an outstanding career, finishing a gutsy 16th.
Kikkan Randall ended her excellent Olympics with a career-best 24th in this distance.
While the Olympic racing is over for this year, both Bjoergen and Kowalczyk are already looking ahead.
29 years old, Bjoergen could easily add to her treasure chest of medals at the Sochi Games, in 2014. But after a career filled with ups and downs that reached its pinnacle in Whistler, the newly-crowned queen of cross country would only commit to racing the 2011 World Championships in Holmenkollen.
“It’s a lot of [work]…to be at the front in cross country, and I think it’s four years to Sochi,” she said. “I’m not sure—we’ll see after Holmenkollen.”
Kowalczyk, at 27, will almost certainly continue on to the 2014 Games, according to Sebastian Parfjanowicz, a Polish journalist covering the Olympics for the TV station TVP Sport.
Parfjanowicz said Kowalczyk is smitten with Russia and its people, and likes the Sochi courses much more than the ones in Whistler—which she criticized heavily.
“She says that [Sochi’s trails] are the best tracks for her,” said Parfjanowicz. “She has spoken with people from Russia who are responsible for the tracks, and tracks in Sochi are going to be very difficult…not like this.”
“Her goal is to be Marit Bjoergen of Sochi,” he said.
Nat Herz contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.