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SOCHI, Russia — Justyna Kowalczyk’s pre-race routine Thursday included an unusual element: an injection into her left foot.
The Polish cross-country skier had fractured the foot last month, and got the shot to help dull the pain during Thursday’s distance race at the Olympics in Sochi. The course — 10 kilometers of slushy classic skiing that sent athletes up a brutally long, steep, sun-baked hill — would provide plenty of suffering on its own.
After just over 28 minutes on the snow, Kowalczyk was at the finish in tears, though it was unclear if they were tears of joy, or of pain. The 31-year-old had won a clear victory over her rivals, beating Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla by 18 seconds, and Norway’s Therese Johaug, who was third, by nearly half a minute.
Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, the pre-race favorite, dropped from medal contention late in the race, and finished fifth.
The medal was Kowalczyk’s second-ever Olympic gold, and the fifth medal of her career—surpassing her country’s Winter Olympic medals record previously held by Adam Malysz, the ski jumping legend. No other athlete from Poland has ever earned more than one at the winter games, according to the International Ski Federation.
“I think this is something big,” Kowalczyk said afterwards. “It’s taken a lot of years of hard work.”
Kowalczyk’s strength is her classic skiing, and Tuesday’s event, an individual-start competition that sent the women off one at a time in a race against the clock, was expected to be her best shot at gold in Sochi.
But she was also expected to have to fight with Bjørgen, who last week won the first distance race at the Olympics and appeared to be riding her peak fitness here.
She suffered an uncharacteristic “collapse,” as she termed it, in the last two kilometers of the race, which climbed 260 vertical feet up that steep hill, with the hot sun beating down overhead. Temperatures during the race were in the mid-50s.
At the bottom, Bjørgen sat in second place, 20 seconds behind Kowalczyk, and two and seven seconds ahead of Kalla and Johaug, respectively.
Instead of making a run at Kowalczyk, Bjørgen went backwards, losing time to all three women. She skied only the 14th-fastest pace to the top of the hill, losing nearly 20 seconds to Kowalczyk, and nearly as much to the two other medal winners.
It looked like Bjørgen was slipping on that big climb. But afterward, she denied having any problems with her skis, or her wax.
“I had no problem with that. It’s only me that was the problem,” Bjørgen said in an interview. “I was fighting with Kowalczyk all the way, and I have to say congratulations to her. It’s incredible for her.”
The collapse, however, prompted some concern from the Norwegian women’s coach, who told the country’s national broadcaster, NRK, that he would wait a day to set the team for Saturday’s relay, in case Bjørgen was getting sick.
“We have to (wait) to find out if anything breaks out, or if it was a random day,” he said.
To win the race, Kowalczyk had to conquer The Hill two times, and she described the last few kilometers of the race as “really tough on the body.”
“I had to fight,” she said.
She’s known for her strength in the classic technique, and on uphills.
Norway’s Heidi Weng started 30 seconds ahead of Kowalczyk, and couldn’t keep up when she was caught.
“Normally when Justyna comes I would go with her,” Weng said. “But she was very good today—she is so strong.”
Just below Kowalczyk on the podium was Kalla. The Swedish skier is a familiar face on the podium, but neither of her two previous Olympic medals had come in races in the classical technique.
“It’s incredible,” she said afterwards. “I didn’t think I could get a medal at 10 (kilometers), because it was so tough. But it was tough for everyone.”
Johaug, who won bronze, had been outside of medal contention for three quarters of the race, until Bjørgen’s breakdown.
When she skied into the finish, Johaug said, “I thought I was fourth.”
She added that the start of the Olympics had not been good for her—she finished fourth place in the first race of the games, which took place a day after a teammate’s brother died unexpectedly.
After Tuesday’s race, she told NRK, “I feel like I won bronze.”
“This is good as gold for me,” she said.
–Chelsea Little contributed reporting
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.