While Norway’s first team dominated both its semifinal and most the final in the freestyle team sprint on Sunday in Otepää, Estonia, both Sweden’s first team and Poland maintained pressure on the Norwegians, before Stina Nilsson, a 2014 Olympic bronze medalist in the classic team sprint with teammate Ida Ingemarsdotter, surged through the final turn and secured a clear victory for Sweden’s first team.
“It was about time we won something again, but we have more to offer,” Ingemarsdotter told the Swedish TV station SVT after the race. “This was an important confidence builder, and it’s always a little bonus to beat Norway.”
Last season in Sochi, Russia, Ingemarsdotter and Nilsson teamed up to earn bronze in the team sprint at the 2014 Olympics. On Sunday, the duo beat Sochi’s team-sprint gold medalist, Ingvild Flugstad Østberg (who paired with Marit Bjørgen for the title), and Østberg’s Norwegian teammate Maiken Caspersen Falla.
Norway, Sweden and Poland took control of the top three by the halfway point of the Otepää 6 x 1.2-kilometer team sprint, and turned the first team sprint of the year into a fight for World Cup points for the rest of the field.
Poland opened with Justyna Kowalczyk as the scramble leg and Sylwia Jaśkowiec as the anchor. On her last of three laps, Kowalczyk took the lead from Falla, but on the final hill before the stadium, Falla passed Kowalczyk and sent Østberg out in first on the final leg, 0.22 seconds ahead of Jaśkowiec. Sweden’s Ingemarsdotter tagged Nilsson in third, 1.64 behind Norway. Meanwhile, Finland’s second team, with Aino-Kaisa Saarinen and Riikka Sarasoja-Lilja, was another 3.72 seconds back in fourth.
Not long after the last exchange, the 21-year-old Nilsson quickly closed the gap. She passed Jaśkowiec, 28, and was right on 24-year-old Østberg’s tails at the beginning of the lap, while Jaśkowiec latched on behind. Østberg tried to drop them both, leading them into the climb and up and over toward the finish, but the race turned into a three-way sprint by the finishing stretch.
Putting herself in second on the descent, Nilsson took advantage of fast skis and the draft off Østberg to slingshot past her, and put four-to-five meter gap on the Norwegian and Jaśkowiec as the trio rounded the last corner toward the finish.
In the straightaway, Nilsson increased the gap to cross the finish line with a clear victory, 0.85 seconds ahead of Østberg in second. Jaśkowiec was another tenth of a second back in third for Poland’s first-ever podium in a team sprint. It was also Kowalczyk’s first podium of the season.
“I knew that Ingvild is really strong, so I stayed behind her until the last turn, when I surged past her,” Nilsson told SVT. “It was marvelous. My skis were amazing, and it was super inspiring to race, and that meant a lot today. We both had a good feeling.”
“We felt good and tried to get a big gap,” Østberg told FIS. “Unfortunately the plan did not work as we had hoped but the second place is good.”
With the victory in Otepää, the Swedish duo will be among the favorites for the freestyle team sprint at the World Championships on their home turf in Falun next month.
While the top three teams duked it out up front, they separated themselves from fourth by nearly 16 seconds at the finish. Germany’s first team, with Hanna Kolb and Denise Herrmann, placed fourth (+16.54), and Finland’s first team, with Anne Kyllönen and Krista Parmakoski, finished fifth (+17.64).
Ida Sargent and Rosie Brennan, of the Americans’ second team, came through the first exchange in fourth, half a second behind Sweden, after Ingemarsdotter led the first lap. At the second exchange, Brennan tagged Sargent three seconds back in sixth, but remained in the top six with a slight gap to the remaining 10 teams in the field.
Sargent brought the team back to fourth and within 2.2 seconds of first on her second lap, but by the fourth of five exchanges, the U.S. slipped to seventh, six seconds behind. One lap later, they were back in sixth, 8.4 seconds back, and Brennan held that position to the finish, coming in sixth, 18.14 seconds after Sweden.
The first U.S. team, with Sadie Bjornsen and Sophie Caldwell, was knocked out in the semifinals after placing fourth and ended up 11th overall. The top-three teams from their semifinal (the U.S. second team, German first team and Poland) advanced based on time.
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.