Not too long ago, there were times when Marit Bjørgen fell flat on her face in the Olympic freestyle sprint, when she was nowhere near contention in the Sochi 4 x 5-kilometer relay (no thanks to a waxing fiasco), and when, in her second-straight individual sprint, she failed to make the finals.
The latter moment came Saturday in the first World Cup race since the Olympics ended in Russia a week earlier. One day later, the 31-year-old Norwegian was at the top of her game, unsurprisingly and as usual.
While her occasional blips prove she’s human, Sunday’s effort showed Bjørgen is as primed as ever for a run to clinch the overall World Cup title.
“I’m very satisfied,” Bjørgen told NRK after winning the 10-kilometer freestyle individual start in Lahti, Finland, according to a translation. “Today, everything was perfect.”
That’s good news for the Norwegian squad, but one of her teammates wasn’t so psyched on Sunday. Therese Johaug, who took silver to Bjørgen in the last women’s race of the Olympics, the 30 k freestyle mass start, placed third in the Lahti 10 k, 0.7 seconds behind Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla in second and 27.6 seconds behind Bjørgen.
“Right now, it really sucks,” Johaug told NRK. “I am disappointed and sorry. I hoped for at least second place.”
While Johaug still leads the overall World Cup standings by 150 points over Bjørgen, the 25 year old know she has her work cut out for her if she’s going to stay ahead with five more races to go this season. Two are classic sprints, and while Bjørgen hasn’t been in the top six in recent sprint races, she’s been a lot closer than Johaug.
“There are many races left and I must try to get as many [points] as I can,” Johaug said.
The difference between the two came in the way they approached the challenging two-lap course in soft, cumbersome and artificial snow — with real flakes falling as they raced.
Bjørgen in bib 64 of 81 started with some restraint, feeling out the first lap and a half before putting the pressure on for the last few kilometers.
Johaug started a minute behind, and by the first 1.3 k checkpoint, held the lead by 4 seconds over Bjørgen. Another Norwegian in the hunt for overall World Cup glory, Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen ranked third early in the race, 9.7 seconds back from Johaug. By 6.3 k, Jacobsen was 12.8 seconds back in third.
Known by some as the “Tiny Terror,” Johaug continued to post the fastest times through the ensuing checkpoints up to 6.3 k, where she was 2.3 seconds ahead of Bjørgen.
But Johaug started to look rattled in the second half of the race, gasping for air as she usually does, but this time lacking the power to hold her position.
By 8.4 k, Bjørgen was 11.7 seconds ahead of Johaug, and 24.3 seconds up on Kalla, who started earlier in bib 56. Kalla had also eased into her race, accelerating over the last few kilometers, and took the lead at the finish by 2.5 seconds over Jacobsen.
Jacobsen had previously topped fellow Norwegian Heidi Weng by 4.8 seconds for a moment in first place. Weng initially bumped Finland’s Riitta-Liisa Roponen, who started and finished more than 15 minutes before her, out of first.
All of those women and more moved down as Bjørgen barreled toward the finish. Without any signs of faltering or slowing down, she finished nearly 27 seconds faster than anyone else, with Kalla and Johaug coming closest.
For Kalla, it was the kind of result she needed following a couple of crashes in Saturday’s sprint that left her in 11th, one place behind Bjørgen.
“I’m glad for second place,” Kalla told FIS. “My plan was to start slow and speed up during the race. We had challenging snow conditions but I felt strong. … I am really looking forward to the last competitions of the season especially to the World Cup Final in Falun, [Sweden].”
Jacobsen finished fourth, 30.1 seconds behind Bjørgen and narrowly off the podium. She’s currently third in the overall standings, 51 points down to Bjørgen.
Weng placed fifth, Roponen was sixth, and Finland put a total of three in the top 10 with Kerttu Niskanen in seventh, and biathlete Kaisa Makarainen in ninth.
Sweden’s Emma Wiken was eighth, and France’s Coraline Hugue placed 10th.
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.