Sixty-six World Cup starts, 66, Canadian women’s coach Eric de Nys reiterated. That’s how long Finland’s Mona-Liisa Malvalehto went without a podium since her first World Cup start more than 12 years ago.
On Saturday, the 29-year-old mom achieved her first in the 0.85-kilometer World Cup classic sprint in Liberec, Czech Republic. She won the qualifier, dominated the heats and went on to ski away from her five competitors in the final – one of them being Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk. By comparison, Kowalczyk has started some 170 individual World Cup races (not including stages), made the podium 54 times and won 24 of them.
But enough about Kowalczyk. Saturday belonged to Malvalehto, a multitalented individual with multiple national accordion titles.
That’s right. Two years ago, Malvalehto, who studied music in college, went on BBC’s Maestro celebrity reality show to test her skills at conducting. She won. “I do not remember when I last experienced such adrenaline,” Malvalehto said after leading an orchestra through Beethoven. “It is the most difficult thing.”
As for Saturday’s race, Malvalehto said it was simply “unbelievable.” Just as she did every time around Liberec’s one-lap sprint course, she started hard and let the others chase. In the final, Gaiazova was quickest to react, tucking behind her in second until losing some momentum before the final hill.
Kowalczyk had moved up and squeezed between them, and three women – Kowalczyk, Gaiazova and Maiken Caspersen Falla – were left fighting for second. Kowalczyk took it in a photo finish, 1.7 seconds behind Malvalehto’s winning time of 2:03.8. Falla was third, just ahead of Gaiazova, who notched a personal best of fourth.
“All I could think about was double poling as hard as I could,” Gaiazova said on the phone. “I thought, ‘I’m somewhere in the front and there’s a chance for the podium,’ but all I could do in that moment was double pole.
“I did the best I could, I’m definitely happy with my PB,” she added. “I think there is more good things to come.”
“[Malvalehto’s] had sixty-six races to get to where she is,” de Nys said on the phone. “That’s proof that you just can’t give up, and you gotta keep going out there day after day and it’s gonna come through.”
Two of his athletes, Gaiazova and Perianne Jones, were on a similar track, he added. Both tallied career highs on Saturday, with Gaiazova in fourth and Jones in ninth. What worked for the Canadians, and for Malvalehto, was that the course was shortened from 1,700 meters to 850 meters the night before.
“It would’ve been a 4:10, 4:20 sprint,” de Nys said of the 1.7 k course, which was changed at the coaches’ meeting on Friday. “FIS made it clear a few years ago that they want sprints to be around three minutes. It’s not a sprint if it’s over three minutes.”
For Malvalehto, the winner of Saturday’s qualifier and every heat thereafter, the speed session was a testament to her fitness.
“I knew that I had a good training period at home,” she told FIS News after the race. “When I heard that it was only one lap, I knew that this was my race. For me, not too long is a little bit better.”
The last time a Finnish woman won a World Cup was 2009 with Aino-Kaisa Saarinen’s 10 k home victory at the Kuusamo Ruka Triple. A month later in December, Matti Heikkinen won the 15 k in Davos, Switzerland.
“It was a very big day for me,” Malvalehto said. “I think I would not be the winner not having my two-year old kid.”
Her teammate, Saarinen qualified in fourth, 4.54 seconds behind Malvalehto’s winning time of 2:04.06, and went on to place 17th after being eliminated in the quarterfinals.
Kowalczyk as the second-fastest qualifier (+3.35) won her quarter and semi despite looking somewhat tense in the latter. She edged Falla by 0.1 seconds in the semi, with Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg and Celine Brun-Lien finishing less than a second later to advance as lucky losers.
In the final, Oestberg went on to place sixth (+29.7) after breaking a pole and getting a replacement at the bottom of one of the last descents. Brun-Lie placed fifth (+4.5) behind Kowalczyk, Falla and Gaiazova, who all lunged at the finish.
For Kowalczyk, coming off her fourth-straight Tour de Ski title, the Liberec podium was pretty standard: she’s made it in every individual race she’s done in there.
“I was not sure about today, but I have always been on the podium in Liberec,” Kowalczyk said at a press conference. “I did not feel too tired after the Tour. … I am feeling very good but at the World Championships the sprint course will be tougher and longer.”
Falla said she didn’t mind the short distance.
“It was something new,” Falla said. “I am happy for the third place. It is a good sign for me before the World Championships [at the end of February].”
For Gaiazova, it also signaled good things to come.
“I’m happy that results are coming along,” Gaiazova said. “I love classic sprinting. Even though it’s so close to the podium and being third would’ve been sweet, I’m still super happy to be in the final and fight for the finish for the podium.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.