Norwegians Petter Northug and Marit Bjoergen have now both sat out a race at World Championships – not Charlotte Kalla though, and the Swedish star has no plans to take a day off.
In another day at the office, Kalla teamed with Ida Ingemarsdotter to win the women’s World Championship classic team sprint in Oslo, Norway, skiing away from Finland and Norway in the last lap.
The team sprint features pairs of athletes, alternating laps, for a total of six loops in a contest that favors neither pure speed, nor great endurance, but a balance of the two. Referred to as the “Championships of interval training,’ the nearly twenty minute race is a brutal test, especially on the challenging Holmenkollen course.
The big climbs, and relative lack of recovery played into team selection, with more weight being placed on the ability to maintain a high pace for a long period – the bread and butter – or perhaps more appropriately, the brød and gjetost – of the distance skier.
With that taken into account, Finland, the two-time defending Champions, were favorites to keep a tight grip on the crown. Both Aino Kaisa Saarinen and the young Krista Lahteenmaki excel in the longer races. But the women’s field generally features many fewer sprint specialists than the men’s, and with the emergence of Ingemarsdotter as a solid World Cup racer on the longer courses, Sweden certainly looked good coming in.
Two semifinals of eight teams kicked off the day in a battle for the ten slots in the final. The top three teams in each heat advance automatically plus the next four fastest pairs.
With only one team per nation allowed at the World Championships, the field was somewhat diluted. In both semis, the top teams were able to break away, back off the pace, and cruise to the finals, leaving the rest to fight for every second, and a lucky loser slot.
Norway, Sweden and Slovenia easily outpaced their competition in the first semi booking their spots in the final. In the
second heat, Finland and Italy easily advanced, with the US taking down Germany for the last automatic slot.
Ingemarsdotter summed up the basic strategy for the medal favorites, saying “In the qualification I tried to do an easy job…just going with the others slow and easy, and save all energy I could for the final.”
Two teams from each semi moved on as lucky losers, and the table was set.
Right from the gun it was clear this was a different race – the pace was high the intensity palpable. There would be no “easy job” here.
Finland, with Saarinen taking the first leg, pushed the pace from the start, a planned approach according to Finnish head coach Magnar Dalen.
“They are distance skiers first of all,” Dalen said of his women, “so the thing was to ski fast and hard from the beginning.”
The goal was to break as many teams as possible, and tire out anyone who could hold on. In many ways, the strategy paid off. Sweden, Finland, Norway, Slovenia and Italy quickly opened a gap, and even among these teams there were some clear differences.
Slovenian Katja Visnar and Italy’s Arianna Follis were both struggling to remain in contact, putting pressure on their teammates – Petra Majdic and Marianna Longa respectively.
By the time the fifth lap came around, those teams were out of the medal hunt, the stronger skiers unable to make up for their weaker teammates. Barring something cataclysmic, the podium would be an all-Scandinavian affair.
“We were quite happy to drop Slovenia so Majdic doesn’t have the possibility [of fighting for the podium], Dalen said. “If she is coming close [at the finish] she is very hard to beat.”
Saarinen’s approach to accomplishing this goal was simple – ski each lap faster than the last.
Down to the homestretch for the final tag, the three teams were all within a second, Finland holding a slight lead. Out of the fog and into the tag zone, they came, double poling with a fury – these were the last meters for the scramble skiers.
In a matter of seconds the race changed, Sweden making a move that would result in gold. Kalla waited right at the beginning of the zone, and took over from Ingemarsdotter before Saarinen had reached Lahteenmaki.
This gave the Swedes an edge as Kalla was able to accelerate to speed first, and shealmost instantly had three meters on Finland and Norway. She continued to attack up and out of the stadium and into the descent.
The move was not in response to Finland’s late tag. After the race Kalla said that she planned all along to go hard from the start of her last leg. And Finland’s error was one of strategy, not of execution. According to Dalen, the Finn’s had picked out a spot for the exchange before the race, and merely were following that plan.
Lahteenmaki and Astrid Jacobsen, who had taken over from Maiken Caspersen Falla for Norway, faced a solid 10-meter deficit by the time they hit the big climb. Halfway up they had made no progress, and Jacobsen, seeing the chance for gold slipping away, made her move. She stepped out from behind the Finn, and pulled alongside. Over the top she led, a position she held around the stadium, up the final hill and down into the homestretch.
“I saw that Krista – that she didn’t have the power to catch Kalla,” Jacobsen said. “I tried to go in front…because I was
dreaming for the gold.”
Kalla meanwhile opened her lead further, pumping her arms as she crossed the line, skiing into the arms of the strapping Ingemarsdotter, laying claim to the medal that has eluded the Swedish women so far this Championships.
Jacobsen held her lead until the last 50 meters, but finally succumbed to the relentless Lahteenmaki.
“I knew that being first into the finish with a girl just behind was not the best,” Jacobsen said. “So when I got in front I knew I was going for the gold and risking the silver.”
Lahteenmaki described her legs as “full of lactate” on the finish run, but said that her arms still felt good. And with the last 200 meters straight double pole, that was all she needed.
It was still a good day for the Norwegian pair. Falla is just twenty-years-old, and she bounced around the finish area, still in just her race suit, like a child on Christmas morning, helping the exhausted Jacobsen, and enjoying the moment.
Jacobsen, for her part, grew up just several kilometers from the venue, and was able to thrill the hometown crowd. At one point her Championships appeared to be over. With Falla besting her in the last two sprints, she had no spot in this event until Marit Bjoergen opted to sit out.
The former overall World Cup runner up, and the sprint World Champion in 2007 said the bronze today bested both of those accomplishments. Two summers ago, Jacobsen was hit by a car while biking, and for a time it was unclear that she would walk again, let alone ski race at a high level.
The silver was also a fine accomplishment for the Finns. Veteran Saarinen claimed her second medal of the Championships, and the performance marked the first major conquest of Lahteenmaki, Saarinen’s heir-apparent on the women’s team.
It wasn’t always the plan for Kalla to race every event. Over the summer, when she was planning for World Championships, she considered dropping the team sprint. She hadn’t had much success classic sprinting in 2010, and that technique has always lagged behind her skating.
But with her first World Championship gold in hand, Kalla has to feel pretty good about her decision. At the post-race press conference she said that the decision to race was made before she heard that Bjoergen would take a pass.
She pointed to the improvements she has made in her classic skiing this year and Swedish coach Rikard Grip noted several strong classic sprint results for Kalla.
And Grip is not concerned about Kalla breaking down under the tough schedule.
“At the moment when she has the gold medal that gives her much more energy and confidence than if she not should race and have a rest day today,” Grip told FasterSkier.
The race was also some bit of redemption for the Swedish wax staff who were responsible for the men’s slow skis in both the classic portion of the pursuit and Tuesday’s 15km classic.
The Championships are likely over for the two Norwegians. Barring something unforeseen, neither has a start spot in the two remaining races. The young Falla can count her first World Championships a great success, despite failing to reach the individual sprint final.
Before the team competition, she said she was very nervous. “My whole body was shaking,” she described at the press conference.
Jacobsen, the veteran of numerous big races, shared the feeling.
“We sat up in the wax cabin shaking together,” she joked.
Kalla and Ingemarsdotter look to lead Sweden to another medal in Thursday’s 4x5km relay. The two will bookend the race with Ingemarsdotter scrambling and Kalla anchoring.
Saarinen skis the critical second classic leg for Finland, and Lahteenmaki has another opportunity to close.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.