It certainly seems cliché, but it did actually happen. As Marit Bjoergen made her way down the homestretch, Norwegian flag in hand, the impenetrable fog of an Oslo March began to dissipate, the forecasted sun making its first stadium appearance, and illuminating yet another celebration of gold.
As expected, Norway skied clear of the field to win the women’s 4×5 kilometer relay, besting Sweden by 36 seconds. Finland, continuing a strong Championships, took bronze.
The pervasive fog that is common at this time of year sat heavy in the stadium, but up on the higher parts of the course, blue sky and sun alternated with the pea soup that has dominated the last several days. With the video board barely a shadow across from the stands, fans had to rely on stadium announcer Kjell Erik Kristiansen for updates from the race, and wait for the skiers to pass by, which they did once midway through the five-kilometer loop, and again at the exchange.
Kristiansen had primarily good news to share with the hometown crowd as Norway broke away midway through the second leg and never looked back.
Vibeke Skofterud handled scrambling responsibilities, and though she was unable to manage the final kick of Marianna Longa (ITA), she did her job, staying within striking distance of the Swedes and Finns.
Italy, with only two strong skiers – Arianna Follis joining Longa – were hardly a concern. But Ida Ingemarsdotter, just 24 hours removed from a gold medal in the team sprint, continued her distance skiing revolution, and tagged off to Anna Haag just 1.4 seconds behind the Italians.
“I thought that Longa was going to do something during the race,” Ingemarsdotter, said. “I decided to just be calm and see when she starts to go hard. When I saw her do that I decided to follow and see what happens.”
In a premonition of what was to come, Ingemarsdotter’s skis were excellent – as good as she has ever had she said.
“You just can follow the others and on the downhill you can have a smile on the face and see how the others work,” she explained.
Finland’s Pirjo Murranen held off Skofterud by two seconds, turning the race over to Aino Kaisa Saarinen.
“I gave all I had,” Skofterud said, explaining that she fell off the pace on the last hills, not due to bad skis, but because she was tiring.
“My skis were 100% perfect. It was difficult snow to get 100% grip and you also have to have 100% technique, and I didn’t have that in the last kilometers,” she said.
Therese Johaug (NOR) immediately set about closing the gap on the leaders. Italy dropped out of the picture, and Johaug pulled in the seconds over the first set of climbs. By the time the race dropped back to the stadium, she was even. On the hills up above the stadium, where the crowd was thickest, lining the trail in a wall of ski celebration, Johaug attacked, getting clear of both Sweden and Finland
Saarinen had tried to make a move right out of the stadium and get a gap, but she was unable to shake Haag and Johaug. A strong double-poler, her plan was to pull away on the gradual terrain.
Haag couldn’t handle Johaug’s pace either pace, her wax slipping on the tough uphills as the Norwegian dropped the hammer.
“I feel like I could go and go and had much power today,” Johaug said of her race. Her plan all along was to attack coming back through the stadium, and she executed perfectly.
Kristin Stoermer Steira headed out on the first skate leg with a margin of just over nine seconds. She described such a gap as challenging – far enough ahead that she was on her own, but not out of sight.
“I was a bit fortunate today it was cloudy, and with the fog they couldn’t see me up the hills, Stoermer Steira said.
“I am very satisfied with the weather,” she added with a laugh.
She needn’t have worried about the women coming from behind. Despite two disappointing performances in the first races of the Championships she was in fine form today. The gap kept growing, and with Bjoergen waiting in the exchange zone, the gold was all but inevitable, and Sweden and Finland were left to battle for the silver.
And this was not a fight without drama. Sweden’s expected third, Maria Rydqvist, a surprising sixth in the 15km pursuit on Saturday, fell ill, leaving the door open for Britta Johansson.
The 27-year-old Johansson doesn’t have a World Cup podium to her name, but already holds a bronze medal in the relay from the 2009 World Championships. She was left off the Olympic relay, and her primary goal for the year was to get that spot back.
It took Rydqvist’s misfortune to fulfill the dream, but just hours before the race, Johansson got the nod. Instead of heading to the airport for her flight home, she found herself back on the tracks, contending for a medal.
Johansson did not try to be a hero and stick with Steira. “I know she is a little bit stronger than me so I was trying to do my own race,” she said.
She managed to hang with Finland’s Riitta Liisa Roponen for the first two kilometers, but then began to slip. Roponen pulled steadily away, and by the final climbs above the stadium, Johansson was nearly 15 seconds down.
But the Swedish waxers finally gained some redemption. After blowing the men’s skis several times this week, they finally nailed it. Johansson, riding extremely fast boards, made up nearly the entire deficit on the descents. She gave nothing back on the large sprint hill, and closed the gap the rest of the way in the stadium, opening up a small lead of her own on the drop to the exchange.
Roponen termed her skis “bad,” and said she couldn’t compete on the downhills.
Charlotte Kalla took over with five meters on Krista Lahteenmaki, and never looked back, slowly but surely skiing away. There would be no sprint for the medals.
Kalla was motivated by Johansson’s performance and was happy to go out ahead of Lahteenmaki.
“It was good for me…because then I could just relax and do my very best,” Kalla said. She also gained confidence seeing how well Johansson’s skis were running, knowing the her’s would be similar.
Lahteenmaki said she was a bit tired after her silver medal performance in Wednesday’s team sprint. Kalla’s fast start was too much for her and with her legs “full of lactate” she could not get into position to fight for the silver.
Meanwhile at the front, Bjoergen was not coasting. Despite a large lead and a 30k to race on Saturday, she never backed off, turning in the fastest split on the anchor leg despite celebrating with the flag for the last 100 meters.
“It is not so easy to slow down on the track,” she said. “There are lots of people around the track and it is hard to not go fast.”
And while she did not take it easy, she did not have to “go to the basement” – bury herself in a hard sprint. “I wasn’t lying in the finish so that is good,” she said.
She crossed the line into the arms of her waiting teammates, who had spent the last minutes in the finish area, passing the time snapping photos of each other, the crowd, the fog, even the press photographers.
“I had the dream to take the flag, and I had the chance to do it,” Bjoergen said, sitting in a familiar spot at the press-conference, once again wearing a special Norwegian gold team jacket.
Bjoergen has now won four gold medals in four starts this Championships, and will go for one more in Saturday’s 30k.
“It will be a hard race. Justyna [Kowalczyk] wants the gold medal and there are some girls here who want the gold,” Bjoergen said looking at her teammates. “Anything is possible, but it is not going to be easy.”
She was happy with her decision to skip the team sprint on Wednesday, describing her feeling that morning as “a little tired.”
Kalla, on the other hand, is on track to race all six events. Despite the grueling schedule, she attributes this feat to her mind and not her body.
“I have looked forward to this relay for a long time and I think that is the most important thing – that you have the ambitions to go really fast. It is not a physical thing, but a psychological thing I think.”
Ingemarsdotter points to the fact that the Swedes are enjoying themselves.
“I think many thought we would be tired after yesterday’s hard work, but me and Charlotte, we are just in the flow right now and smiling and having fun, and doing what we like to do – to ski fast,” Ingemarsdotter said.
With today’s victory, Norway reclaims the World Championship title from Finland, who triumphed in 2009. The same Norwegian quartet won gold in the 2010 Olympics, and if Steira continues to race, will be a tough group to take down.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.