It’s not easy being Justyna Kowalczyk — always breaking trail, always having the weight of Poland on her, and in a classic distance race at home on her birthday without any Scandinavians in the field? Forget about it.
Kowalczyk was easily the favorite for Sunday’s World Cup 10-kilometer classic mass start in Szklarska Poręba, Poland, nearly two years after she won the same race there. That didn’t make winning any easier.
With noticeably slower skis, lacking glide on pea-soup, 35-plus degree afternoon, Kowalczyk relied on kick and her unmistakable stride on her 31st birthday. That didn’t help her on the long downhill on the last third of each 2.7 k loop, but she was able to nail the two climbs.
“The person who first blazes trail, it costs a lot of strength and speed,” Kowalczyk’s said in a post-race interview with WP Poland, according to a translation. “Therefore, at the beginning of the second and third [lap] athletes stuck to me.”
Lucky for her, Kowalczyk’s kick wore off as she continued through the four-lap race — just as she was warming up. After immediately taking control and skiing off the front of the mass start, Kowalczyk couldn’t get more than a few strides ahead of Russia’s Yulia Tchekaleva on the first lap. By the downhill, Tchekaleva quickly soared up alongside Kowalczyk, then past her to lap through the stadium 0.6 seconds ahead in first.
Tchekaleva’s lead was short-lived. By the 4.2 k checkpoint, Kowalczyk had gapped her and everyone else by nearly 12 seconds; Tchekaleva was skiing in second and Germany’s Denise Herrmann was 13.4 seconds back in third. American Liz Stephen led a chase pack in fourth, another 10 seconds behind.
“I have never started on the first line of a World Cup mass start before, so that was really fun, and the pace went out hot, but I never got swallowed up in the mass like I think I would have if I had started back in the pack,” Stephen wrote in an email. “Justyna was on a mission today and just never looked back.
“The fans were so loud and into it out there today,” Stephen added, after eventually placing sixth, her career best in an outright World Cup. “Especially as it was Justyna’s birthday today, too.”
Nearly 30 seconds ahead of Tchekaleva early in the first lap, and 41 seconds up on Herrmann in third, Kowalczyk looked back occasionally — giving a glance back as before picking up the maximum bonus points at 6.9 k. Unless something tragic happened, this race was in the bag, but she didn’t let off until striding blissfully into the stadium for the last time.
Upon finishing first in 34:43.2 without anyone contenders in sight, Kowalczyk waved her arms in the air. Then she stopped, bent over her poles for a millisecond to catch her breath and looked back on the course, waiting patiently for Tchekaleva to follow in second.
Tchekaleva came through uncontested 41.8 seconds later, and another Russian Julia Ivanova rounded out the podium in third, 1:15.2 seconds back from Kowalczyk.
Ivanova had caught and challenged Herrmann with Germany’s Claudia Nystad and Stephen on the last lap, then ended up dropping Herrmann before the finish. Herrmann placed fourth, four seconds later, and Nystad was another two seconds back in fifth. Stephen placed sixth, 1:26.4 after Kowalczyk, edging Germany’s Stefanie Boehler by 2 seconds.
Nystad originally led the chase, along with Stephen, up the final climb. After absorbing Herrmann as part of their group, they forged ahead with Stephen up front and Tchekaleva in their sights — but she was at least 25 seconds out of range.
“I was feeling really good for most of the race until the very top of the uphill on the last lap when Julia Ivanova went by me and as I tried to hang I just fell apart a bit,” Stephen explained. “[I] didn’t push over the top as much as I needed to to hold off the coming Germans.”
Welcoming Tchekaleva across the line, Kowalczyk gave her a hug. The birthday girl was excited, but not visibly ecstatic about her World Cup win in Poland. It was, after all, just another race before the Olympics — minus the Norwegians, Finns and Swedes.
“Maybe you cannot see it, but I am very touched,” Kowalczyk told WP. “I learned to have control emotions. I once cried today when I got the cake, the flowers, but the second time I will not cry. For such moments the training does it all.”
So she got a cake — but did she eat it, too?
“It’s not the best thing for me right after the race,” Kowalczyk said with a smile, adding she’ll, “eat a double portion for my mom.”
As for the victory, Kowalczyk said it was “nice,” but “Sochi is still far away.”
The victory elevated her to third in the overall World Cup standings behind Norway’s Therese Johaug and Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, respectively, and four points ahead of Marit Bjørgen. At least Johaug and Bjørgen aren’t expected to compete at the final World Cup Feb. 1-2 in Toblach, Italy, before the Olympics.
Also in the top 10, Russia’s Natalia Zhukova placed eighth (+1:47.8), American Ida Sargent notched a career-best distance result of ninth (+1:49.3), and Austria’s Katerina Smutna was 10th (+1:49.5).
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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.