After packing seven women into the top 10 on Saturday, it was undisputed that Norway was the team to beat in Sunday’s 4×5 k women’s relay.
And the Norwegians showed no signs up letting up, starting four teams that all contained talented skiers. However, it was obvious that only one was a clear standout – Norway I. Featuring the same quartet — Vibeke Skofterud, Therese Johaug, Kristin Stoermer Steira, and Marit Bjoergen — as they did to win the World Championship relay in Oslo last February, the Norwegians sent a message that beating them on their home turf was going to be tough.
As it turned out, it was more than tough — it was impossible, as Norway picked up the gold, leaving Norway’s ‘B’ team and Finland to collect silver and bronze, respectively, after a multi-leg battle.
Immediately following the starters’ gun, Skofterud led out the pack and quickly set a pace that very few could follow, stringing out the field by the end of the second 2.5 k loop.
By the end of the first leg, only Norway II remained in contact with Skofterud when she tagged off to Therese Johaug. World Champion in the 30 k skate last February, Johaug played a critical classic role in the relay team, and from the second that she received the tag, she started putting time into her pursuers. She skied away from the chasers, and Norway I never looked back, skiing unchallenged to the finish line.
“We did definitively took the relay serious and not as granted,” Skofterud said in an FIS Ski post-race interview. “We started the new day this morning with a new focus — the relay.”
While it was apparent early that the gold medal was not up for grabs barring a disaster (or miracle, depending on your allegiance), the fight for the bronze and silver medals place heated up quickly.
The Swedes, which ranked second coming into the relay, suffered early, as lead-off skier Ida Ingemarsdotter had a difficult leg, handing off in 10th position, 42 seconds off the lead. After Anna Haag received a brief ride from hard-charging Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), who did some second-leg heroics to move from 15th into 5th, Sweden moved within seven seconds of 6th.
Maria Rydqvist then held the fort, pulling the Swedes up to 6th before handing off to anchor Charlotte Kalla who skied to the fastest fourth leg of day. However, despite her stellar skiing, Kalla just ran out of racetrack, leaving the Swedes to finish fourth, 12 seconds back of a podium position.
Meanwhile, the Finns, who were brought back into second place with a solid classic leg by Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, were in a tight battle with Norway II for the silver medal. Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg of Norway II tagged off to biathlete Tora Berger, while Saarinen tapped Riita-Liisa Roponen.
Berger and Roponen then dueled for 5 km before the rifle-less biathlete put four seconds into her Scandinavian rival before the final tag — Marthe Kristoffersen for Norway II and Riika Sarasoja-Lilja for Finland.
After some back and forth action, Sarasoja-Lilja was attacked in the last 700 meters by Kristoffersen, and couldn’t hold on, making it a Norwegian one-two finish on the day.
The surprise of the day were the French women. After they were led in Saturday’s 10 k freestyle by Laure Barthelemy in 23rd, it seemed unlikely that they were going to be a factor. However, Aurore Jean held France in it for the first leg, tagging off in second before they slipped to 5th on the day on the back of a strong third skate leg by Anouk Faivre Picon, who finished 31st on Saturday.
With no Canadian women taking part, the American women were tapped to uphold the North American pride.
However, it was apparently a tough day for lead-off skiers named Ida, as Ida Sargent (USA) struggled mightily coming into the exchange over a minute back, leaving second-leg skier Kikkan Randall with some ground to cover. And cover it she did, skiing the second-fastest two-spot leg of the day before tagging off in 12th position to Liz Stephen, who continued to make up ground before Holly Brooks rounded out the foursome by crossing the line 9th in a tight pack finish with Russia I and Germany I.
Coming off the best distance result of her career (eighth in Satuday’s 10 k freestyle), Randall was particularly impressive. In the second leg, the former sprint-specialist took some big-name scalps.
She was just 13 seconds back of Kowalczyk, and just ahead of Therese Johaug, a promising indication of her distance skiing shape.