Carrying the hopes of a nation on your shoulders is hard enough. But when your shoulders are as small as Therese Johaug’s, it’s a feat nothing short of monumental.
In the penultimate race of the 2011 World Ski Championships, the 5’2” Johaug did something that so many larger women had tried and failed to do all season: she beat her teammate Marit Bjoergen.
Buoyed by the cheers of an estimated 100,000 spectators packed dozens deep along the sides of the trails in Oslo, Johaug skied to a victory in Saturday’s 30 k freestyle that was nothing short of breathtaking, with Bjoergen 45 seconds down in second and Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk in third, a full minute-and-a-half behind.
On a tough course that suited her, Johaug opened up a gap on Bjoergen and Kowalczyk on her second of three trips up the relentless Styggdalen climb. She skied alone back into the stadium and raced the last half of the race by herself under a cloudless sky, slicing through a stiff breeze.
“What more can I say? The sky was blue, the sun is shining, and all the people are coming up here to cheer us. It was fantastic, and it’s memories for the rest of my life,” Johaug said.
The victory earned the 22-year-old Johaug her first-ever World Championships individual gold, and it simultaneously denied Bjoergen her fifth win in five races here—the only real blemish in what has otherwise been a season that was close to perfect.
“It was hard for me. It’s hard to see her go in front, and the gap go bigger and bigger,” said Bjoergen, who does a lot of training with Johaug. “But I’m very happy for Therese. She is a young girl, and a girl for the future—and for Norway.”
Johaug wasn’t supposed to be the one to dethrone Bjoergen, though. If anyone was going to be able to pull off the feat in Oslo, most people expected it to be Kowalczyk, whose nail-biter of a victory in the Olympic 30 k classic was the last time anyone had beaten the Norwegian in a head-to-head distance race.
Through four events in Oslo—she skipped the team sprint earlier this week—Bjoergen hadn’t lost, though her four-second margin of victory over Kowalczyk in Monday’s 10 k classic was one of her smallest all year, perhaps suggesting
that her rivals were getting closer.
At the start of Saturday’s race, Bjoergen didn’t waste much time getting into her usual position at the front. Kowalczyk led up the first climb as the pack made its way out on a promenade lap, but on their way back, it was Bjoergen driving the train.
On their first lap, the women skipped the Styggdalen (Norwegian for “ugly valley”), a multi-pitched ascent that grinds its way to a peak after more than 300 vertical feet of climbing in just two kilometers.
But after completing their promenade loop, the women then went out for their first of three trips around a much more robust 8.3-kilometer loop, which included the Styggdalen. That was where Johaug got to work.
“I knew that my chance was the uphill,” she said.
Hands down, Johaug is the best climber on the women’s circuit—she won the ascent up the massive Alpe Cermis at the end of the Tour de Ski in January by a full minute. And her quick-tempo, churning hop-skate on the Styggdalen was enough to shatter the pack just halfway through the race.
Bjoergen was the only one who didn’t crack at all—even Kowalczyk had problems, with a small gap opening between
her and the two Norwegians. By the time the women headed back through the stadium in the middle of their first big lap, a small group had re-formed that also included Kristin Stoermer Steira (NOR) and Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, but it was clear that the pressure applied by Johaug was starting to cause problems.
In the stadium, the group traded their skis in the stadium for freshly-waxed boards. (They were taking advantage of a rule instituted a few years ago and since revised to allow the women to use as many as four different pairs over the 30 kilometers.) On the second trip up the Styggdalen, Johaug made another push, and her opponents began to falter—first Steira, then Kalla.
Kalla came off so fast that it appeared that she’d crashed, but according to Rickard Grip, one of the Swedish coaches, “she was only tired.”
“They have smashed really hard in the front, from Johaug,” Grip said. “She was really strong today.”
By this point, short of an equipment problem, or catastrophic explosion by one of the leaders, Johaug, Bjoergen, and Kowalczyk all seemed assured a medal. But Johaug was at a clear disadvantage in any type of sprint finish.
While both Bjoergen and Kowalczyk faced off in the sprint finals just over a week ago, Johaug has no such speed. If it the race were to come down to the last 200 meters, she would be looking at bronze.
Settling for third place was not in the cards for the diminutive Norwegian. With the grade and duration of the Styggdalen ideal for a climber, Johaug remained at the front—which was hardly a surprise. What brought the crowd to
its feet in an roar was when Johaug opened a small gap—to which Bjoergen and Kowalczyk could not respond.
“It was too hard for me to follow,” Bjoergen said.
The attack wasn’t aggressive—a subtle increase in pressure, and she quickly had five meters. Passing the time check at 15.5km halfway up the climb, Johaug held an eight-second gap, a margin she more than doubled in the next kilometer. Reaching the top of the climb at Frognerseteren, Johaug was ahead by a full 22 seconds, and looking fresh.
The crux of the attack was approaching, however. Would the lightweight Johaug be able to hold off the more robust Bjoergen and Kowalczyk on the long descent back to the stadium, especially with a strong gusting wind?
The answer was a simple yes. Bjoergen succeeded in closing the gap to 14 seconds, but as soon as they headed back out on the hills above the stadium, Johaug pulled away again. The pattern repeated over the next ten kilometers–Johaug would pad her lead on the uphills, and Bjoergen and Kowalczyk would make some up on the descents. But they were losing more than they were gaining, and the lead would eventually break the one-minute barrier.
Entering the stadium at 21.9 kilometers, Johaug and Bjoergen both opted to switch skis for the second time. After the race, both women said they chose to start on their second-fastest pair of skis, then changing to their third-ranked set, before closing out on the fastest pair.
Kowalczyk on the other hand, said the pair she was using were excellent, and opted to ski right through. Bjoergen had opened a gap of nearly twenty meters on the one last climb before the lap, which Kowalczyk took the opportunity to instantly close back up.
The pair headed back out to the long climbs, Bjoergen content to let Kowalczyk take the lead. It was clear that the chasers had given up on gold and focus their efforts on the silver.
While Kowalczyk and Bjoergen are usually loathe to play games, choosing to ski hard, then harder, they dropped the pace nearly to a walk on their last time up the Styggdalen. Skiing from the front doesn’t give many chances to practice tactics, but Bjoergen had no problem following Kowalczyk, confident in her fresh skis on the downhill.
“I had better skis than her—I had my best skis in the end of the race,” Bjoergen said. “I knew if she could do a little bit of work, and I could stay behind, I knew that I was much better than her on the downhill.”
And indeed, when they hit the descent, Bjoergen’s skis took over. From the top of the course back to the stadium, Bjoergen opened up twenty seconds on Kowalczyk, and with less than four kilometers to go and another significant drop to come, the race was decided.
On the same hills, Stoermer Steira finished reeling Kalla back in, and the two were locked in a battle for the “wooden
medal.” The Norwegian has become famous for finishing fourth in major championship events, and on Saturday, she had another opportunity for the same.
The lack of finishing drama at the front did not bother the crowd. Bjoergen may be the Queen of Cross-Country Skiing, but the Norwegians don’t play favorites. The hills of Holmenkollen shook with the shouts of the red-and-black clad masses, as Johaug dropped down along the back of the main grandstand, heading for the Gratishaugen–the brutal climb on the sprint course.
They bellowed their approval once more when she reappeared in front of the jump and turned into the stadium, but cacophony was loudest when she took the Norwegian flag on the high stretch before the final run to the finish.
Johaug danced her way along the last 100 meters, flag waving madly, before crossing the line with her trademark yell. She collapsed in exhaustion, face an emotional mix–physical pain, joy, and the magnitude of the occasion bringing her close to tears.
She was quickly back on her feet, waiting as Bjoergen took her own triumphant trip in front of the stands, waving to the crowd and pumping her fists, a massive grin on her face as she skied into Johaug’s arms.
Kowalczyk, too waved to the crowd—the Pole might be the chief rival to “their” girls, but she received nearly as warm a welcome. While there’s no question Kowalczyk wanted a gold, she, too, could not contain a smile as her World Championships came to an end.
Meanwhile, Kalla led Stormer Steira into the stadium in a battle for fourth. At the base of the last hill, at the end of the backstretch, the Norwegian tripped, and went down. Kalla hesitated, looking over her shoulder, then hit the gas, and was gone.
The two talked briefly at the finish—Stormer Steira, with her usual smile, making clear that no hard feelings were apparent.
Kalla, however, was downcast afterwards. She had entered the day as a medal favorite, and was out of the contest much earlier than anyone had expected. The only top skier, male or female, to race all six events, one can only
speculate if the effort of the last ten days finally caught up with her.
Johaug’s win, meanwhile, was the seventh Norwegian gold in eleven cross-country races in Oslo—a dream come true for a rabid home crowd that hadn’t seen a World Championships in the city for nearly three decades.
The thousands of flags flickering on the breeze served as a reminder of why cross-country skiing can attract talents like Johaug and others, and her win will surely inspire others—just as Bjoergen’s efforts in the 2005 World Championships in Germany did for Johaug herself.
“Since I was a little girl and I saw Marit take a lot of gold in Oberstdorf, I thought that one day, I also would stand here,” Johaug said.
With all four of the nation’s starters finishing in the top six, and plenty of others waiting in the wings, there’s no sign that other countries will be challenging the Norwegian women’s hegemony any time soon. But that doesn’t mean they’ll stop trying—especially the Swedes, who will host World Championships in Falun, in 2015.
“We will see, when it’s time for Falun, if we can make something like this,” Grip said. “We are working hard to keep our position, and move it a little bit.”
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.