With a squad composed of four individual medalists, the Norwegians skied to victory in the women’s relay at the World Junior Championships on Monday.
The Norwegians were trailing slightly to Germany after a tough first leg by Ragnhild Haga. But Martina Ek Hagen took over, closed the gap, and handed the race off to Heidi Weng, who broke the Russian and Swedish teams with a big attack on the skate course’s steepest, toughest climb in Otepaa, Estonia.
Weng tagged to Kari Oeyre Slind, who held off Russia’s Elena Soboleva, with enough time to celebrate with her country’s flag on the homestretch.
Russia was second, 22.6 seconds back, and Germany’s anchor, Hanna Kolb, skied her country to bronze, another 12 seconds down.
The American team of Amy Glen, Kinsey Loan, Jessie Diggins and Joanne Reid finished seventh, bettering last year’s finish by one place.
“We got in contact, played around with six, seven, eight,” said Matt Whitcomb, one of the American coaches. “These girls worked really hard—every single skier on the team protected and stayed in contact with six, seven, eight, nine or ten. The girls skied phenomenally.
Diggins capped an excellent championships by posting the second fastest time on the third leg.
Canada was 11th, just missing the top-10. In one of the closest finishes of the day, French anchor Celia Aymonier bested her Canadian counterpart Heidi Widmer by less than three seconds. Widmer did close the gap by 14 seconds over the loop, but ran out of course at the end.
Janelle Greer scrambled for the Canadians, tagging off to Heather Mehain in 13th place. The team moved up from there as Annika Hicks climbed to 10th. A strong leg, second fastest for the anchor skiers, by Kazakh Anastasia Slonova dropped the squad to their final position.
Overall the field spread out quickly, despite the relatively short course. By the end, none of the top-10 finishes had much drama in the finish stretch.
Conditions in Otepaa were foggy and cooler than in the last few days, with fast, firm tracks.
The Norwegian junior women had already had a successful championships, collecting seven medals in their three races. But they weren’t taking anything for granted, especially with each of their women skiing just a single, short 3.3-kilometer loop.
“We can’t take the victory in front of the race—almost every year it is tight,” Slind said. ““We know that we are one of the favorites, so we feel the pressure.”
The Germans and Russians made them work for it, but in the end, neither team had the depth to contend. Norway has now won the last five women’s junior relays, dating back to 2007 in Italy. Both Weng and Slind were part of last year’s championship team in Hinterzarten, Germany.
“Last year we were 5th and this year 2nd,” said Russian anchor Elena Soboleva. “Next year we will catch the Norwegians and we will be the world champions.”
Slind explained that her strategy was to start her leg conservatively to save energy for the final push. “I was very nervous during the race that Russia would come and get me, but I made it,” Slind said at the post-race press conference.
Her concerns were for naught as she skied the fastest anchor loop of the day.
“I’m going to celebrate this win with two pieces of chocolate!” said Slind.
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.