Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) bounced back from an uncharacteristic slump two weeks ago, serving notice to rival Marit Bjørgen (NOR) and the rest of the women’s field that she is the favorite headed into World Championships.
Known for her remarkable ability to race nearly every event of the season, almost always in top form, Kowalczyk dropped out of the pursuit in Sochi, Russia on the last World Cup stop, a surprising display of weakness.
She had finished back in 43rd in the freestyle sprint the day before, and suddenly showed chinks in her usually invincible armor.
Any concerns about her health and fitness were laid to rest today however. She won qualification by over a second, besting the surprising Aurora Jean (FRA) and then proceeded to lay waste to any and all who dared challenge her in the heats.
Kowalczyk won both her quarterfinal and semifinal going away, using high tempo on the challenging Davos climbs. Soft snow, requiring herring bone did not cause any issues, and her lead was large enough that she could afford to snowplow the big sweeping left turning descent down to the stadium.
After the race, Kowalczyk told FIS News that her strategy was to ski from the front and attempt to open up a gap.
She did just that in the final. The Davos course consists of two laps, and just halfway up the big climb the first time, Kowalczyk had skied away.
Bjørgen and Jean made an effort to stay close, but they never had a chance.
Jean led through the stadium, with the Norwegian taking over on the hill, opening her own lead, and skiing clear to second.
Anne Kylloenen (FIN) came back on Jean in the homestretch, edging out the Frenchwoman for the final podium spot.
Like Jean, Kylloenen has had a breakout season, and the performance was her third individual podium of the season, after entering the year with none.
Prior to this season, Jean had advanced to the finals in a World Cup sprint just twice, both times placing last in the heat. But in Sochi, she earned her first podium, placing second to American Kikkan Randall, and while she just missed her second consecutive top-3, she was in the running right to the line.
Bjørgen last raced on the World Cup back on January 20th in La Clusaz, France. Until today she had won every World Cup race she started — though she missed the entire Tour de Ski because of concerns about her heart.
She checked out fine, and today’s sprint was her first time racing since Norwegian Nationals wrapped up on January 26th.
Bjørgen told FIS news that her feeling “was not as good” as she had hoped but is expecting to improve as World Championships get under way.
Racing continues on Sunday with a 10km individual start freestyle race.
– Maiken Caspersen Falla (NOR), who entered the day 2nd to Kikkan Randall in the Sprint Cup standings, crashed in her quarterfinal and placed 21st. Kowalczyktook over the second spot in the Sprint Cup by four points.
– Six different nations were represented in the final — Katerina Smutna (AUT) was fifth and Ida Ingemarsdotter (SWE) was sixth.
– Laurien Van Der Graaff was the only representative of the home country to crack theheats, qualifying 30th and placing 29th.
– Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg (NOR) qualified in 27th, but did not race the heats. According to Norwegian broadcaster NRK, this was due to illness.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.