FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.
VAL DI FIEMME, Italy — There are few ways to make a gold medal taste sweeter than it does on its own, but Marit Bjørgen and teammates Therese Johaug, Heidi Weng and Kristin Stoermer Steira somehow accomplished it for Norway in the women’s 15 k skiathlon on Saturday at the 2013 Nordic World Ski Championships. With golden-girl Bjørgen leading the way the women swept the top four spots in the finish for one of the most dominant performances ever seen from one country.
“I was feeling very good today, incredible body and my skis were so good,” Bjørgen told reporters afterwards. “I’m really happy. I really wanted it, and with the other teammates it’s incredible to have the four girls in the top four. It’s a big day and incredible feeling.”
Bjørgen played her hand perfectly on Val di Fiemme’s rollercoaster course, leading as little as possible and biding her time for a big move on the final climb. This was definitely not one of those mass starts that got blown out of the water; at World Championships everyone comes ready to fight. Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk, out for blood from a disappointing sprint, led much of the classic half. Johaug and Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla took pulls from the front, too. But all the while Bjørgen skied quietly in the second row, assessing both her own fitness and everyone else’s.
Ten women remained in the lead group after the ski exchange at the halfway mark but they dropped like flies over the next few minutes. Soon their numbers were five — four Norwegians plus Kowalczyk. As the remaining kilometers ticked by and the sprint champion from Thursday was still in the mix it became clear Bjørgen would be hard to beat. The only real question became how she would take her tenth world championship gold and who fight her the hardest for it.
In interviews later Bjørgen explained she made two separate plans for her gold-winning move prior to the start; one in case she felt incredible and one if she only felt OK. It was somewhere in the second half of the race that she realized she felt great and picked Plan A, which prescribed she break the field relatively early on the final climb.
“I wanted to stay behind and not use so much [energy] in the beginning, and I was planning to attack in the last climb if I was feeling very good,” Bjørgen said. “If I was not good, I wanted to try on the last 100 meters.”
Whether her teammates knew what was coming or not, Bjørgen’s finishing speed is no secret. Johaug, Steira, Weng and Kowalczyk worked hard and created one of the most evenly-matched women’s mass starts of the year until the point when Bjørgen decided to go. Johaug alone matched Bjørgen’s tempo as the pace increased and the terrain took its toll, but only for a limited time.
With two kilometers to go, Steira, Weng and Kowalczyk dropped off the pace. Bjørgen and Johaug, all alone, stopped playing games and threw down a blistering V1. Spectators, sensing the building tension, screamed with renewed frenzy.
Then Bjørgen truly went for it — and when Bjørgen attacks there’s no stopping her. Johaug put up as much fight as she could, briefly drawing even with her teammate as the two sprinted furiously together up the last Zorzi climb, but she was ultimately unable to match Bjørgen’s tempo for the entire length of the pitch. Bjørgen pulled away and carried more speed over the crest, her lead growing to meters within seconds from the additional downhill momentum.
Bjørgen’s red and blue form emerged over final small hill into the stadium with empty space behind her and the crowd went wild. A few pole-plants before the line Bjørgen glanced back to see Johaug and two other teammates behind her — smiling broadly at the sight, she raised her arms in victory for the second time this week as she eased up over the line. Johaug mirrored the gesture and the two friends embraced with delight as they waited for two more of their teammates to complete the Norwegian sweep. Weng outsprinted Steira for her first career medal at World Championships, 8.9 seconds back. Steira, in forth for the umpteenth time, crossed the line a second behind. Kowalczk staggered through in fifth, 16.18 seconds back, and Kalla took sixth.
Four Norwegian women at the top results is an intimidating sight to behold as two team events loom later this week at World Championships. After the finish Bjørgen credited her own success in part to her teammates.
“We are so strong a team and the reason is we’re pushing each other so much on the training. They are pushing me and I know I must do the work to be at the top level,” Bjørgen explained.
Johaug was a particular threat in Bjørgen’s mind. Kowalczyk was a known challenger in the classic half, but Bjørgen says she fears her fiery compatriot more than anyone.
“What I was afraid of was Therese because I knew she was strong today,” Bjørgen said. “I wasn’t so afraid of [Justyna] but I was really afraid of [Therese].”
Johaug must be getting used to playing second-fiddle to Bjørgen by now, but as she had never before earned silver at World Championships she was ecstatic with the outcome.
“It was a special race today and my body felt really good, but Marit was much stronger than me,” Johaug said. “My goal for this season today was to take a individual medal in this World Championships in Val di Fiemme and I did it first race so I am happy.”
Asked if there was a Norwegian team strategy to work against Kowalczyk, Johaug acknowledged they used the information from their coaches that the Pole was tiring in the second half.
“We had a trainer say that Justyna was a little bit tired so I had to push, but it was a special race because in the skating there was tactics,” Johaug replied. “We looked at each other and nobody wanted to go first, but that’s cross-country skiers.”
Norway’s bronze medalist was also thrilled with her finish, as this is Weng’s first career medal at World Championships. She was so exhausted after the race her coaches quickly ushered her away from reporters, but she managed to succinctly convey her joy.
“I am very happy today,” Weng said. “A medal today — I can’t believe it. I am starting to cry now.”
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.