Before the women’s classic sprint final got underway on Wednesday in Stockholm, Sweden, Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) had won the last three races in the classic discipline on the World Cup calendar. Apart from World Championships, where she was shut out of a gold medal in every event, the 30-year-old Polish star had already established herself as an odds-on favorite whether the race on tap was a sprint or distance event. Sometimes she has to fight for her wins, and for others it looks almost looks easy for her.
The latter was true in front of the Royal Palace in Stockholm, where she won her fourth World Cup classic race in a row by 2.2 seconds on a 1.1 k course. She made no bones about it after finishing: it had been a piece of cake.
“It was a relatively easy victory today,” Kowalczyk told the FIS interviewer. “I had great skis. I like such cold conditions. I felt very strong.”
Clearly. After a reserved start in the qualifying round, where she placed fifth behind Anne Kyllönen (FIN), Kowalczyk proceeded to demolish her quarterfinal and semifinal heats, leading from the first hill and never relinquishing the position despite a strong headwind on the back half of the exposed waterfront course. She would increase her lead both on climbs and descents, blessed with fast skis and a strong diagonal stride. Kowalczyk won her quarterfinal by 1.7 seconds against Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg (NOR) and her semifinal by a closer 0.7 seconds over Katja Visnar (SLO), who was the only one that came close to pushing Kowalczyk all day.
Even Marit Bjørgen (NOR), who took a break from racing for the Oslo 30 k in order to recover from a cold, couldn’t match her Polish rival’s pace. Bjørgen looked more mortal than usual in the heats on Wednesday and barely made it into the final as a lucky loser. Despite feeling fresher than those who competed in Holmenkollen, her hopes to challenge Kowalczyk were quickly dashed in the final when an early fall from Kyllönen forced the back of the pack to maneuver around her, slowing Bjørgen’s progress as Kowalczyk began her typical surge off the front.
Bjørgen moved up from her position near the rear as the group neared the last gradual climb to the finish, passing two Finns, but Kowalczyk’s lead was already too great. Bjørgen took second, 2.2 seconds back, and Kerttu Niskanen (FIN) held on for third (+3.1) for her first individual World Cup podium.
As Kowalczyk’s win was not a surprise and Bjørgen’s failure to stop it was likely a disappointment, Niskanen appeared to be the happiest person on the podium.
“A really great day,” she told Hevoskuuri.fi “I got to the podium in the end, and this is indeed expected.”
Kyllönen, at a loss to explain exactly how she tripped herself up on the 180-degree turn, was generally happy with how the day turned out for her team. There were three Finns in the final despite two crashes from Krista Lähteenmäki and Aino-Kaisa Saarinen in the quarterfinals, and in the qualifier Kyllönen posted the fastest time by 1.7 seconds.
“Today was a really super day,” Kyllönen told Hevoskuuri.fi via translation. “If I would have stayed upright… I got a Sprint Cup fifth place, which is a very important achievement. I’m still in a position to improve the condition of the end of the season, I’ve been waiting all the time. This is great to go to the last three races.”
Stockholm is the very last sprint on the World Cup calendar, so in addition to the regular podium ceremony the end-of-season sprint leaders were awarded their crystal globes. Kikkan Randall (USA) and Emil Jönsson (SWE) locked down these respective titles in Lahti, Finland, two weeks ago, but “World Cup Sprint Champion” became official for each of them on Wednesday.
As the opening event of World Cup Finals, the mini-tour that constitutes the last four races of the season, Kowalczyk next heads to Falun as the series leader. She has already secured the overall World Cup title and merely widened her margin of victory on Wednesday, so the drama yet to play out in the women’s field is essentially limited to who will take the mini-tour title. With bonus seconds from her most recent victory taken into account, Kowalczyk leads by 7.1 seconds after the first stage.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.