Whether Therese Johaug could win Sunday’s 30-kilometer freestyle mass start in Oslo, Norway, was never really in question.
As the Eurosport announcers pointed out, the 24-year-old Norwegian was given 4/9 odds on the World Cup race at Holmenkollen, the premier distance event of the year outside of World Championships. If you bet four Euros on her to win, you’ll get nine back if she does.
Easy money, especially considering she won the race by 44 seconds two years ago. But what if Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk is having a great day, or Norway’s reigning World Cup champion Marit Bjørgen is also in the mix?
With Bjørgen deciding relatively last-minute to skip the 30 k to heal a sore throat, Johaug’s race strategy suddenly became easier and more complicated at the same time. On one hand, she wouldn’t have to battle with Bjørgen to the finish, like she nearly did two weeks ago at the World Championships 30 k classic mass start in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
There, Johaug lost contact on the last hill and finished third after Bjørgen and Kowalczyk, respectively, and she didn’t forget it. Without Bjørgen to push or pace her, however, it could also be tricky to take Kowalczyk on alone.
And so Johaug made Saturday’s race at Holmenkollen her own, and she might have borrowed a tactic or two from Sweden’s Johan Olsson, who broke away early in the men’s World Championships 50 k and held it for nearly 30 kilometers for the win.
Johaug led from the start as nearly 60 others stuck behind her. Kowalczyk remained on her tail, leaving less than a second between them for most of the first five kilometers. Around 7 k, Johaug made her move, gapping Kowalczyk by almost five seconds, then 15 seconds one kilometer later.
Most likely everyone nearest to Johaug at the time – Kowalczyk, Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, Germany’s Nicole Fessel, Norwegians Heidi Weng and Kristin Størmer Steira, American Liz Stephen, Japan’s Masako Ishida – knew what Johaug was up to and capable of. But it was still risky.
From then on, Johaug made a point to charge forward and hardly ever, if ever, looked back. Always on the attack, she refused to let up and switched skis once out of three allotted times.
A new rule/addition to Holmenkollen this year, pit stops required skiers to cover extra ground, which took 25 to 30 seconds to complete. That was enough of a reason for Johaug to keep plugging; her 48-second lead near the end of the second lap was cut to 24 seconds after changing before the third.
Heading into the third of four laps, Stephen and Steira led the chase, but the last three laps were significantly longer than the first at 8.3 k apiece (the first was 5 k). If Johaug was feeling good, she’d be tough to catch, especially as the terrain eased up toward the tail end of the loop.
Just once on the last lap, after nabbing all four preems for a total of 60 points, did Johaug look a little weary. She pulled it together on the descent and grabbed a Norwegian flag with almost a ½ kilometer to go. It some ways, it was a bit preemptive, but Johaug also had more-than-a-minute cushion at 29 k.
She accepted the flag, large and cumbersome, skiing with one pole as she held it up. A little to heavy to do for 500 meters, she struggled as she ascended a bridge in the stadium and said she got a little nervous.
“When the acid was right up in my throat, I did not quite know how to get up the hill with the flag and one stick,” Johaug told NRK, according to a translation.
She didn’t consider tossing it, she said, but would have if Kowalczyk and the others closed on her. Fortunately for Johaug and her country, it didn’t come down to that as she won by 46.6 seconds in 1:21.17.1.
Kowalczyk was second after leaving the pack with three kilometers remaining, and Russia’s Yulia Tchekaleva finished third, 5.3 seconds later. It was her third bronze medal in the last four races, two of which came at World Championships (10 k freestyle and 4×5 k relay). Tchekaleva was 13th in the 30 k classic there.
At a press conference, Tchekaleva, who edged Weng in fourth by 1.7 seconds and Ishida in fifth by 1.9 seconds, said the race was especially hard, but the group tried to work together. At the start of the last lap, it was Tchekaleva, Weng, Steira, Stephen, Ishida, Kowalczyk, France’s Anouk Faivre Picon and Italy’s Debora Agreitar.
Fessel had to change her skis before the final 8.3 k, while the others pushed on as a unit. Kalla clawed her way back into contention after falling off the pace midrace to end up sixth (+1:13.1) ahead of Steira in seventh (+1:17), Norway’s Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen in eighth (+1:18.9), Stephen in ninth (+1:23.9) and Fessel in 10th (+1:31.5).
“When Justyna went away in the last lap I tried to follow her, but I was tired,” Tchekaleva said.
She wasn’t alone. Johaug looked pretty well spent as she teetered across the finish, but flipped a switch and screamed with elation upon doing so. Johaug was ecstatic and who could blame her? She had skied almost 23 kilometers alone and won.
“It was a perfect day for me,” Johaug said. “I felt very strong. When you are in a good shape, you just ski and go away. … When I heard I was 90 seconds ahead, I thought something really would have to happen for me to lose the victory.”
Two years ago at World Championships, Johaug won the same race at Holmenkollen, beating runner-up Bjørgen by 44 seconds. Previously a classic specialist, Johaug said skating is becoming her new love.
“I hated skating; now it’s almost the opposite,” she told NRK. “I have taken major steps in skating over the last year. It showed when I was in Val di Fiemme when I won the 10 kilometer.”
Alternatively, Kowalczyk wasn’t quite as pleased with her skating.
“Free technique has been challenging for me this season after the injury and operation,” she said, referring to the knee arthroscopy she had last March.
“It is always difficult to win 30 km in Oslo,” Kowalczyk added. “Therese was stronger. … I am happy I finished second.”
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.