When you’ve got about 7 ½ kilometers of real estate ahead of you, it’s not easy going it alone. Just ask Kristin Størmer Steira, who skied away from 55 others in the Sochi World Cup 15-kilometer skiathlon shortly after the transition.
After the two-lap classic leg, the Norwegian attacked the taxing freestyle course in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, earlier than anyone else dared to. With Polands Justyna Kowalczyk, the overall World Cup leader, out after 5.5 k, Steira figured she had every opportunity to go for the win.
She hadn’t done so in an individual World Cup since 2008, but why not try? She came to Sochi to get a feel for the Olympic course; might as well leave some good memories there.
The 31-year-old ended up schooling the field, but not without pushing herself to the finish. She had to round the course twice on her own, both times ascending a kilometer-long climb solo. Several in a chase pack worked behind her, drafting off one another and trying to close the gap.
At Steira’s high point, she was 35 seconds ahead of the group, led by Russia’s charging Yulia Tchekaleva and Nicole Fessel of Germany. Liz Stephen of the U.S. also got in the mix and pushed the pace with 2.5 k to go, and from there, the space between them grew closer.
Steira continued to plug away through the falling snow, looking back frequently. With one kilometer remaining, she was 26.8 seconds ahead of Tchekaleva, Fessel and Norwegian teammate Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen. Germany’s Katrin Zeller was also in the hunt, as was Finland’s Anne Kylloenen, Japan’s Masako Ishida and Stephen.
As Steira weaved around the curving descent into the stadium, which from a distant camera shot looked like a tiny figure floating down an alpine trail, Tchekaleva gave all that she had left as she ascended the other side. Fessel forged ahead behind her, hanging on and getting in good position with a few extra pole plants over the top.
Into the finish, Steira was safe and secured her first World Cup win since the 15 k freestyle more than four years ago in La Clusaz, France. She crossed the line in 46.17.7 while Tchekaleva, Fessel and Jacobsen duked it out for second. Tchekaleva took it by 0.7 seconds over Fessel, and Jacobsen settled for fourth.
For Tchekaleva, who finished 19.2 seconds back from Steira, the silver was a career best. For Fessel, it was her first World Cup podium. Jacobsen came through 0.4 seconds later and Zeller was fifth, another nine seconds behind (+29.8). Kylloenen placed sixth (+31.5), Ishida was seventh (+37.3) and Stephen nabbed a career best eighth (+45.3).
Nearly 15 seconds later, Russia’s Olga Mikhailova and Natalia Zhukova placed ninth and 10th, respectively.
All smiles at the finish, Steira soaked up what it felt like to win in Sochi. After placing fourth in the Olympics three times, she really wants a medal at the upcoming Games in Sochi.
“Before the last Olympics in Vancouver I thought if I would change one thing for [next time, it would be to] race one year before in pre-Olympics,” Steira said in a press conference.
Turns out, she likes Sochi, especially it’s classic course. Early on Saturday, Steira and Tchekaleva put the pressure on Kowalczyk in the leader’s bib. The took the lead by 2.3 k, but Kowalczyk held on until she couldn’t bare to anymore.
Collapsed on the side of the trail, she pulled out during the second classic lap.
“The form did not feel good, and I had also bad skis,” Kowalczyk told NRK, according to a translation.
Waxing conditions were notably tricky, with falling snow and temperatures just below freezing. But Former Norwegian national team coach Morten Aa Djupvik told NRK in the studio he had never seen Kowalczyk quit like that. “It is very unusual,” he said.
And it wasn’t the pain in her leg – brought on by skating – that prompted her to pull out before the freestyle portion, she said after pulling off the course and breaking down with disappointment.
Before the race, Steira told reporters she hoped to stay with Kowalczyk. With her gone, she remained in front with Fessel and Tchekaleva through the transition, then decided to get going.
“I was a bit skeptical if I had tried to go early, but I felt refreshed and it was just to go,” Steira told NRK.
“It was hard fighting for the podium the whole way and when I got [to the finish] I was really tired,” she said in the press conference.
Meanwhile, Tchekaleva and Fessel joined her in celebration on the podium.
“This is my second podium this season and it is particularly nice to stand on the podium in your own homeland,” Tchekaleva said. “I have never been to the Olympics and it is the first time that I have encountered people checking my badge all the time. I have never encountered something like this before.”
Adding to the Olympic-like atmosphere, with all the training involved, were the changing conditions, which athletes and coaches have noted in preparation for the Games.
“I was little bit afraid before the competition about the snowfall, but then it was not that bad,” Fessel said. “Of course it is always difficult to compete in snowfall but I had great skis.”
“It seems like snowy weather is good for me,” Steira said, smiling.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.