Norwegian fans looking for a good view of the finish line for the women’s relay at the 2011 World Championships might want to start staking out their seats now.
Given this weekend’s performance by the Norwegian women, there’s not much doubt about who will be waving her country’s flag as the winner of the relay in Oslo. After putting six of their skiers in the top 11 in Saturday’s 10 k freestyle, the Norwegians skied to a convincing win in Sunday’s 4×5 k relay, with anchor Marit Bjoergen finishing nearly 30 seconds ahead of second-placed Charlotte Kalla (SWE).
“This is probably one of the best relay teams I’ve been on,” Bjoergen told the Norwegian press after the race. “This victory gives us outrageous self-confidence.”
The Italians were third, nearly a minute back, while the Americans finished 13th. Canada did not field a women’s team.
The field was strung out right from the start, as Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk gave full gas as soon as the gun went off. By two kilometers, she had opened a 15-second gap over all the chasers, including the two Norwegian teams in second and third.
In her World Cup debut, 22-year-old Ida Sargent was scrambling for the Americans, and through four kilometers she managed to hang tough with heavy hitters like Italy’s Magda Genuin and Germany’s Steffi Boehler.
“I wasn’t feeling intimidated at all—I was kind of expecting the start to be more aggressive than it was,” Sargent said in an interview. “Everyone was going for it from the beginning to try to stick with [Kowalczyk]—there wasn’t really any of the tactics of drafting and cat-and-mouse games.”
Kowalczyk finished her leg in just over 13 minutes, and Ewelina Marcisz took over with a 16-second gap that evaporated under the pressure of Therese Johaug’s (NOR) fierce chase. Meanwhile, Sargent’s wheels had come off—she lost a minute and 15 seconds over the last 2.8 kilometers, and tagged off to Kikkan Randall in 19th place.
“With about a k or so to go, I blew up really, really hard,” Sargent said. “Next time, I’d ski my own race and pace it a little differently—once I blow up, it’s usually no coming back.”
By the time Johaug had completed the second leg, the Norwegians were already gone—Kristin Stoermer Steira held a 20-second cushion over the Swedes and the second Norwegian team, then gave Bjoergen the reins. And after her dominating victory in Saturday’s individual race, Bjoergen didn’t give an inch Sunday, turning in the fastest skate time of the day to win by 27 seconds.
The real battle shaping up appeared to be between the Swedes and the second Norwegian team, who started their anchor legs together. But while Sweden had Olympic gold medalist Charlotte Kalla, the Norwegians had run out of depth.
While Norway had brought seven world class women to Gallivare, they lacked an eighth, and turned to 17-year-old Marit Robertsen. According to the Norwegian broadcaster NRK, Robertson was in Gallivare on a training camp, and was asked to ski the final leg for her country’s second team. Having never competed in a World Cup—or even so much as an international race at any level—she took the tag from Ingvild Oestberg and lost three minutes over five kilometers, falling to 15th place.
Kalla skied in unchallenged to second, while Follis managed to drop Finland’s Krista Lahteenmaki and best Germany’s Nicole Fessel in the sprint.
After taking the tag from Sargent, the U.S.’s Kikkan Randall had her second strong day in a row. She skied the fourth-best time on her leg, faster than Norway’s Astrid Jacobsen and Finland’s Riika Sarasoja, which took the American team from 19th place up to 14th.
Morgan Arritola dropped three slots on the third leg, but Liz Stephen, the anchor, picked up four more before the finish, though she ultimately lost a tight finish to Japan and Ukraine.
“Sprinted it out as hard as I could, but I need to work on that a little bit,” she told FasterSkier.
The relay was the first for the American women on the World Cup in around a decade, and Randall said that she was thrilled just to have a chance to compete.
“After having to watch the relays from the sidelines for the last few years, it was exciting to be part of it today,” she said. “We went into today just focusing on the experience of it…the result is solid, but I definitely think we have room to improve.”
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.