Early on in Monday’s 10 k classic individual start race, it looked like Marit Bjoergen was on track to lose her first gold medal of the 2011 World Championships.
On the first steep hill of the tough course in Oslo, the Norwegian was slipping – and not long after, she began to get splits telling her that Justyna Kowalcyk of Poland, who had started one spot behind her, was catching up.
“Today was a very hard race,” Bjoergen said in a press conference. “I knew before I started today that this is Kowalczyk’s best distance… I knew that she was going to be opening hard and she did.”
Her trainer, Egil Kristiansen, said that he was concerned watching the beginning of the race and seeing how fast the Polish skier was moving.
But while Kowalczyk opened hard, Bjoergen closed harder, and the race came down to a thrilling finish.
“[Kowalczyk] got nine seconds, and then eleven, and then eight, and then I was two seconds behind on the last climb and I thought, they are kidding me, I am sure,” Bjoergen laughed. “But I was working very hard at the end of the race, and I did have Marianna Longa with me. Then I was lying at the finish line thinking, am I going to get it, or not? I heard that when Kowalcyk came into the stadium she had 20 seconds, and I thought maybe she can get the gold, and then I heard, no, the gold will go to Marit Bjoergen, and I thought, yes!
“For sure [this was my hardest fight]. You have to be working very hard to take the gold and I really did.”
Bjoergen collapsed at the finish line and watched her rival race towards her from the snow. The Holmenkollen crowd was silent as Kowalczyk rounded the last corner in the stadium, but as soon as it was clear that she would not surpass Bjoergen, the fans went wild, and Bjoergen’s teammates mobbed her in congratulations. Kowalczyk, for her part, collapsed on the other side of the finish line as well.
It has been an impressive World Championships for Bjoergen so far: she won the skate sprint as well as the 15 k pursuit, and her chances are good of collecting gold in the relay and the 30 k as well (Bjoergen said that she has not yet decided whether to race the team sprint). But while dominance is good for Bjoergen, not all of her competitors are sure that it is good for the sport.
“I hope that some [new fast] women will come very soon,” said Slovenian standout Petra Majdic after today’s race.
And Norwegian great Berit Aunli, a three-time gold medalist from the 1982 World Championships here in Oslo, said that to beat Marit, Kowalczyk and Saarinen would have to “race even faster” than they had today.
Of all the women on the circuit, Kowalczyk has seemed like the most likely to have the ability to beat Bjoergen. Although the two have battled all season, Bjoergen has yet to lose a distance race, or at least she has only lost in a roundabout fashion, having the fourth-fastest time in the final race of the Kuusamo mini-tour but collecting a sizeable victory nonetheless.
With Kowalczyk’s fast start, she seemed poised to finally best her rival – or implode in the final kilometers. While “blowing up” might be a strong way to describe the Pole’s finish, she was still questioned about whether her pacing was ideal.
“The first four kilometers is tough,” she said, noting that the terrain played a bigger part in her split times than did a strategy to catch Bjoergen. “It is almost one big uphill, and this is my strength. After this I was fifteen seconds ahead of Bjoergen. Everyone knows that where it is a big uphill, I am going fast.”
But she did acknowledge that her early efforts came with a price.
“In the last two kilometers, I was so tired. And Bjoergen, I know that she was working together with Longa, which is easier. But I am happy, this is a really good race. I was fighting really really good.”
After starting 30 seconds ahead of Bjoergen, Longa – who in finishing seventh was the only non-Finnish or Norwegian woman besides Kowalczyk to crack the top ten – was caught by the winner about six kilometers into the race. For the rest of the time, the two skied together, which seemed to help both.
“She was following me and working very hard in the climbing and pushing me also,” said Bjoergen. “I am happy with that. I was working hard to catch her, and she pushed me all the way. And in the stadium, in the last 50 meters she was working very hard and I didn’t want her to beat me. So I was very happy that she was with me today.”
While much was made of the battle between Bjoergen and Kowalczyk, Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland was close behind, rounding out the podium by finishing just ten seconds behind Bjoergen. Despite being the defending champion in this event, Saarinen was not expected to win today; she has collected only two World Cup podiums so far this season. Another skier might rejoice at such good fortune, but Saarinen isn’t just any skier, and she’s had much more success in the past.
Kowalczyk and Saarinen joked at the press conference about how Saarinen had finished a minute and forty seconds back at the World Cup in Davos earlier this season. Saarinen also said, however, that her goal today had been gold, and Bjoergen, for one, wasn’t surprised that she almost achieved it.
“[Saarinen] has been better and better, and in Drammen she was back again with a very good race,” Bjoergen said. “I knew that she was one of the toughest. It is great to have her back again, after being injured at the beginning of the season. She is great at classic skiing and I knew that today it was going to be hard.”
Saarinen said that the season had been a “big fight” after injuring her shoulder before the opening World Cup races in Gallivare. But today was different.
“I had a good day and good skis today,” she told the press. “Maybe the first kilometer I was a little bit nervous, but after that I could raise my speed all the time and my technique was working very well. At the end I almost thought I could fly. And the audience was yelling and cheering me all the time. It was very hard to hear the split times- the techs tried to yell very hard, but the audience yelled harder.”
She led a resurgent Finnish team to their best day all season. Krista Lahteenmaki finished fifth, Pirjo Muranen sixth, and 22-year-old classic phenom Kerttu Niskanen eighth.
“The whole team did excellent work today, the skiers and the service men,” Saarinen said. “[For the relay] I think the only goal now is the gold.”
The Finns certainly had good skis in the warm, greasy conditions, unlike in some of the races earlier in the week. Their head wax technician told FasterSkier that he had sent ten to fifteen people out to test skis all over the course because conditions varied between the skied-in tracks in the stadium and the less-traveled trails in the woods. They tested klister and hardwax to see what was the best, on average, and ended up on hardwax.
While head coach Magnar Dalen certainly has high hopes for his women in the rest of this year’s World Championships, he was perhaps even more enthusiastic about the future.
“They are young athletes coming up that have a big talent, and it is looking good for Finland in the next two to four years,” he said.
Therese Johaug finished fourth, 14 seconds off the podium. Teammates Vibeke Skofterud and Kristin Stoermer Steira finished ninth and tenth. While it was certainly a good day for the team, the Norwegian performances were perhaps eclipsed by that of the Finns – who suddenly appear poised for an incredible relay performance.
“Finland has always been good in the relay, and they did a very good job today,” Bjoergen said. “I think Finland, Sweden, Germany and Italy… it’s not going to be easy on the relay.”
Kristiansen agreed, saying that he would have to think carefully before picking a relay team.
“Going into the World Championships we had a goal of taking at least one individual gold medal and the relay gold. We’ve achieved one of those by far, but the relay is on Thursday. If we are going to win the relay gold, every one of the girls have to perform to their potential. A relay gold isn’t something you can just walk up and collect. On Thursday, every one of the girls will have to dig deep.”
-Nathaniel Herz contributed reporting