Sitting in a fur-covered leader’s chair, which resembled a throne with its handcrafted touches and Olympic rings, Therese Johaug clasped one of its wooden arms through her white mitten, holding her skis and poles in the other hand.
She bit her thumb and tapped her legs furiously in anticipation — waiting for it, waiting for it, until the exact moment when her Norwegian teammate Marit Bjørgen finished and Johaug realized she won Saturday’s 5-kilometer freestyle, the second stage of the Lillehammer World Cup.
Johaug held off Bjørgen by 0.3 seconds with the winning women’s time of 12:33.7. When she knew it was certain, she leapt out of the chair, screaming, then covering her mouth. Then she couldn’t contain it anymore, as she let out some more sounds of elation and smiled for the cameras all around her.
“This girl was more than just a little bit nervous,” Johaug told the NRK TV station, referring to herself in the third person. “It was so close, and I was sitting there listening to the PA system the whole time. I was scared of celebrating too early, and after everything was over, I had to ask myself if it really was me who won.”
Despite winning last weekend’s 10 k classic at the World Cup opener in Kuusamo, Finland, by 42 seconds over Bjørgen, Johaug wasn’t convinced she could top her teammate for the second-straight distance race of the season.
“I was so nervous sitting in the leader’s chair. Last weekend I had one of my best performances in my career, but knew it would be difficult to repeat it,” she said.
However, Johaug held nothing back once the victory was clear, true to her normal Johaug-self.
The last starter, Bjørgen topped Johaug’s 2.2 k time by 4.2 seconds. Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla ranked third at the checkpoint, 3.2 seconds behind Johaug, and Norway’s Heidi Weng was fourth-fastest there, another 2.4 seconds back.
Johaug started 70th of 96 women and 14th in the mini tour to start the day, trailing Bjørgen by 32.4 seconds. Weng started 92nd as the third-ranked woman heading into Day 2, 9.3 seconds behind Bjørgen.
It didn’t take long for Johaug (who placed 14th in Friday’s sprint) to get up to speed, as she posted the fastest time at 3.3 k, where Bjørgen ended up trailing by 0.8 seconds in second. There, Kalla was up to third, 9 seconds behind Johaug, and Weng was fourth (+12.5).
Just over a kilometer and a half later, Johaug maintained her speed and bumped Kalla in bib 54 from the leader’s chair by 11.3 seconds. She’d stay there until bursting out of it when Bjørgen finished, just three-tenths of a second off her mark.
“I was four seconds ahead and it’s a bit irritating to lose that along the course,” Bjørgen said to NRK.
After winning Friday’s skate sprint, Bjørgen missed out on her claiming second win in as many days of the three-stage Lillehammer mini tour, but remains solidly in the lead in both the mini tour and Overall World Cup standings. However, she said she expects Sunday’s 10 k classic pursuit to be a fight to the end, as the 10 k classic is one of Johaug’s specialities.
“I did not lose many seconds today,” Bjørgen said. “Therese was in good shape. I have a 32-second lead in the mini-tour on her.”
Weng, who was third for the second-straight day, 10.9 seconds behind Johaug, improved to second in the Lillehammer standings and is currently 19.9 seconds out of first. She’ll start Sunday’s pursuit 20 seconds after Bjørgen in second, and Johaug will go out third, 12 seconds later.
“I have to keep my pace tomorrow. It will be an exciting race,” Bjørgen said. “I have to find my rhythm and then I will see how fast I will be.”
Norway swept the podium on Saturday and occupied six of the women’s top seven, with Ragnhild Haga in fifth behind Kalla, Martin Ek Hagen in sixth, and Ingvild Flugstad Østberg in seventh.
Kalla managed to break up the red-white-and-blue in a fourth, just 0.4 seconds off the podium.
Kalla skied well from the start and was in the lead for a while. However, once Johaug was on the course, she knew where things were headed.
“I would have loved to podium today, but you can’t expect that,” Kalla said to the Swedish newspaper SportExpressen.se.
“The Norwegians seem to be in shape these days,” she added. “Both Weng and Bjørgen were in the sprint final yesterday, and Therese skied really fast in Finland last weekend.”
But she was hoping for a podium, and was not happy about missing third so narrowly.
“Crap,” she said about the loss to Weng.
Jessie Diggins was the top American, finishing in 15th place, 39.5 seconds behind Johaug. Sadie Bjornsen was 20th, 45 seconds behind. Liz Stephen was 22nd, 48.3 seconds behind. Caitlin Gregg was 62nd (+1:16.6) and Kikkan Randall was 63rd (+1:19.5).
Bjørgen remains in Overall World Cup leader by 98 points over Johaug in second. Østberg ranks third, 19 points behind Johaug, and Weng is fourth heading into the final World Cup stage of the weekend.
Inge is FasterSkier's international reporter, born and bred in Norway. A cross-country ski racer and mountain runner, she also dabbles on two wheels in the offseason. If it's steep and long, she loves it. Follow her on Twitter: @IngeScheve.