All 2012 FIS World Cup Finals coverage is brought to you through the generous support of Fischer Sports USA, proud sponsors of Kikkan Randall, 2012 overall Sprint Cup Champion.
STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Marit Bjørgen (NOR), dubbed the Queen of Cross-Country Skiing following her dominating performance at the 2011 World Championships, received a medal from the King of Sweden and continued her steady trek toward the overall World Cup title.
Bjørgen overcame an impressive challenge by the red-hot Julia Ivanova (RUS) to earn her fourth consecutive victory. Teammate Maiken Caspersen Falla finished third.
At the start of her current win streak, Bjørgen led rival Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) by just 38 points. Now with only three races and the World Cup mini-tour standings remaining, the Norwegian is up by 160.
While Bjørgen said she was surprised by her victory after feeling sub-par in qualification, and placing an uncharacteristic 12th, events on the course told otherwise.
She won each of her heats, including matchups with Kowalczyk in both the quarters and semis, and had plenty left in the tank to beat out Ivanova on the final climb.
In the quarterfinals, Kowalczyk took an early lead, trying to get clear on the first hill.
That strategy worked well several weeks ago in the Lahti classic sprint. There Kowalczyk blew her competition off the course in the quarters and semis on the steep climbs.
But such was not the case today. She was unable to break away, and Bjørgen, waiting patiently, moved up on the outside on the gradual descent.
Foreshadowing events to come, Kowalczyk dropped back on the backstretch along the water and was left with ground to make up on the final hill.
She did so with relative ease, beating out eventual lucky loser Vesna Fabjan (SLO) while Bjørgen cruised to the line.
The semis played out similarly with Bjørgen moving to the front and leading down the backstretch, with Falla Charlotte Kalla (SWE) and Kowalczyk hot on her heals.
As the race hit the final corner, Kowalczyk, with work to do, swung wide to take an open track, hooking a tip in the chopped up snow in the process.
At high speed, there was no recovering, and the Pole went down hard, ending any chance for an appearance in the finals.
This was the second sprint in a row in which Kowalczyk took herself out with an unhindered crash. She also went down on a corner late in the final last week in Drammen, costing herself a shot at the win.
And the weekend prior, while she stayed on her feet, a cautious turn in Lahti allowed Bjørgen and Ivanova to come by and gain an insurmountable lead.
With the way Bjørgen is currently skiing, it is hard to imagine these mistakes would have been the difference, but Kowalczyk has given up substantial points in the last three sprints due to mishaps.
Ivanova, however, is headed in the opposite direction.
The 27-year-old Russian had only one sprint finals appearance to her name when she woke up on March fourth. Now with two second place finishes in two consecutive sprint starts (she did not race the Drammen sprint last week), Ivanova is quickly establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with.
In the final she led out and maintained the top spot through a majority of the race, fearless at the front.
Bjørgen did not muster an attack until she came around on the outside on the last corner, pulling even with the Russian.
Ivanova responded with a push of her own, and started pulling back away.
But Bjørgen, skiing with her trademark robotic precision, could not be vanquished. She powered up over the crest of the hill, picking up several meters on Ivanova, and gained enough ground to keep the finish from being close.
“I was not surprised that Ivanova was so strong,” Bjørgen said after the race. “She already showed her skills in Lahti.”
Falla, who had faded back on the double pole section, took advantage of Kowalczyk’s crash to get in contention for the podium. She came up hard on Kalla, and the Swede could not quiet come up with enough to take third.
Wile Kalla was unable to reach the podium in front of the home crowd, she did continue to make up ground on Kikkan Randall (USA) in the fight for fourth in the overall World Cup standings.
With Randall finishing 8th, Kalla is now just 17 points in back of the American.
Falla also wrapped up second in the overall Sprint Cup, besting Bjørgen by just 15 points.
Had Falla failed to crack the top-9 the two would have reversed places.
“I am very satisfied,” Falla said of her performance. “The atmosphere during the race was amazing—thank you to all who were here.”
Organizers estimate 15,000 spectators on-hand for the event.
Randall won the Sprint Cup by 122 points and was the only woman to score points in every World Cup sprint this season.
Bjørgen, who told FasterSkier that she has felt in top shape since Lahti, is trying to win her first overall title since 2006, the year she won her last of four consecutive World Cup crystal globes.
The World Cup Finals continue on Friday with a 2.5k freestyle prologue in Falun.
Matt Voisin contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.