FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden, is brought to you by the generous support of L.L. Bean, now featuring a complete line of Kikkan Randall training wear.
FALUN, Sweden — Marit Bjørgen really needed to turn it on at one pivotal point in the women’s 1.4-kilometer classic sprint final on Thursday, the first day of medal competition at the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships. And in her eighth World Championships — more than any other Norwegian cross-country skier can lay claim to — she knew exactly where to do it.
Just before the sun set around 5 p.m. in Falun, Sweden, Bjørgen, 34, hit the stride she had been waiting for all day, coming from behind to take her 13th World Championships gold medal ahead of Sweden’s Stina Nilsson and Norwegian teammate Maiken Caspersen Falla, respectively.
Between the Olympics and World Championships, the gold marked Bjørgen’s 30th medal, putting her in yet another league of her own. Before Thursday’s sprint, she was tied with Norwegian skiing legend Bjørn Dæhlie with 29 total medals.
“Thirty medals is great,” Bjørgen said at a post-race press conference. “The sprint was my first individual gold in 2003 so to still be fighting for a medal in the sprint 12 years after, it’s great and it’s a good feeling. … I’m 34 years [old] and still taking all the sprints around me.”
But Bjørgen wasn’t in it for the record books — she had a job to take care of on Thursday, especially if she wanted to breathe easy for the rest of World Championships.
Four out of five Norwegians made it all the way to the final (with the exception of Celine Brun-Lie, who placed fifth her her semifinal), where Falla led out of the start and up the initial winding climb out of the stadium. Nilsson followed Falla closely in second and Bjørgen remained tight in third, ahead of Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg and Kari Vikhagen Gjeitnes, and Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk, who initially trailed in sixth after a slow start.
“I overslept at the start and it had an impact on everything,” Kowalczyk told TVP1, according to a translation.
As the incline intensified, Falla, who had qualified second earlier in the day (0.24 seconds behind Kowalczyk) and won her quarterfinal before placing second in her semifinal to Bjørgen, dug deeper in the final. She remained up front, leading her three Norwegian teammates in the same lane, while Nilsson skied alongside and slightly behind her over the top.
Meanwhile, Kowalczyk surged from last to fourth, just behind Bjørgen, before the quick turn at the summit into an immediate fast descent.
Falla led up the subsequent climb — also steep but shorter than the first — followed by Nilsson, while Kowalczyk and Bjørgen took advantage of open lanes on the right. At the crest, Bjørgen moved left and in front of Kowalczyk, sneaking ahead of Nilsson as well as the group veered left down toward the stadium. Bjørgen sat back on her fast skis and rode up on the tails of Kalla, passing her to take the lead before the bottom.
As the lead four, with Bjørgen, Falla, Nilsson, and Kowalczyk, cruised into the stadium, they had one last rise before a final descent and sharp righthand turn into the finishing flat.
Before that uphill, Nilsson soared to second with superior glide, tucking past Falla, and chased Bjørgen over the top before challenging her to the finish. While she never drew even with Bjørgen, the Norwegian was well aware of the Swede’s presence.
“I feel Stina right behind me for the last 150 meters and I did have to push really hard before the finish line,” Bjørgen said.
She held off Nilsson by 0.42 seconds, winning in 3:26.63, while Falla hung onto third, 0.99 seconds after Bjørgen and 0.44 seconds ahead of Kowalczyk.
“I’m incredibly happy and relieved,” Bjørgen told NRK after winning gold in her first try at 2015 World Championships. “When I got to the finals, the beast woke in me. Then I knew the smell of medal and I knew I was really nervous at the starting line.”
Bjørgen nervous? It might’ve had something to do with the fact that she raced the final on brand-new skis, which were stoneground on Monday, according to VG.
“In the quarterfinals, I went on the old couple that I’ve won so much, but then I decided to switch to the new skis,” she said in the press conference.
After qualifying sixth, 2.54 seconds off Kowalczyk’s top time of 3:24.89, Bjørgen placed second in her quarterfinal, 0.84 seconds behind Nilsson, and won her semifinal by 0.41 seconds over Falla. Gjeitnes as the third-fastest qualifier raced to third in that semifinal, 1.08 seconds behind Bjørgen, to advance to the final as one of two lucky losers.
Østberg was the other with a third-place finish in her semifinal after Kowalczyk and Falla, respectively.
“I’m feeling in good shape, but I think anything is possible. If you have good skis, good day, it is possible to have more medals,” Bjørgen said of her outlook for the rest of the World Championships.
She could race all six events, or she might opt out of the team sprint on Sunday — she said she wouldn’t decide until Saturday.
“I have taken my goal, one individual gold, and I can relax a bit more,” she said at the conference.
For Nilsson, 21, the silver medal marked her first podium in her second appearance at World Championships. In 2013 in Val di Fiemme, Italy, she placed fifth in the classic sprint — her lone race of the championships.
As she crossed the finish in second on Thursday, she threw her arms up and yelled exuberantly. The 18,300-strong crowd boomed with excitement as well.
“I have not had time to think about what I’ve done,” she told Aftonbladet, according to a translation.
“I’m very happy,” she added. “I [felt] very empty when going in to the finish, but it’s nice to be empty and be second. … Not doubt about it that Marit was the strongest today.”
After what she considered a normal morning (“I had the feeling that I have every morning; I felt hungry,” she said at the press conference), Nilsson qualified fifth and made sure to finish in the top two of her next two heats. Then she completed the day in second overall, and while the moment hadn’t quite sunk in after the race, she had to acknowledge the Swedish fans.
“Every time they introduced me in the stadium, I got just as much praise as Marit,” she told Aftonbladet. “It does not happen every day. … It’s nice to know that there were people here for my sake.”
In the conference, a Swedish reporter even tried to get Norwegian men’s winner Petter Northug to comment on Nilsson.
“I think [runner-up Alex] Harvey knows more about Stina Nilsson…,” Northug said with a smirk.
“Not me,” responded Harvey, the Canadian silver medalist, then jokingly added, “Maybe my teammate.”
The 2014 Olympic champion in the freestyle sprint, Falla, 24, told NRK that she gave everything she had in the final, but that ultimately cost her.
“I had a very good day, and I felt better and better,” she said. “I used up everything I had, but Marit was simply too strong today.”
That said, the success was obviously good for the team. Gjeitnes placed fifth after Kowalczyk, 6.10 seconds behind Bjørgen, and Østberg finished sixth, 10.47 seconds back.
And while they were Norwegians in Sweden, both Falla and Bjørgen said they heard Swedes cheering for them — or maybe it was just Nilsson.
“The atmosphere here is really good,” Falla said in the conference. “I have a lot of supporters here, a lot of family, to know that all the people that are really important to me are standing around of course, it means a lot and helps me reach my goal here in Falun.”
She told reporters she wasn’t sure whether the classic sprint would be her lone race in Falun, or if she’d race the freestyle team sprint as well.
“Today, I am just enjoying third in this race,” Falla said.
Kowalczyk came up short of her first individual podium of the season at this level, after placing fourth in the 10 k classic in the opening World Cup in Kuusamo, Finland, and fifth in a 5 k classic during the Tour de Ski. She did not finish the Tour, pulling out before the final hill-climb pursuit despite ranking fifth overall, then went on to place third in last month’s World Cup freestyle team sprint in Otepää, Estonia, with teammate Sylwia Jaskowiec.
“On the one hand, I am glad that I was in the final, but on the other hand, I’m equally sorry,” Kowalczyk said to TVP1. “The opportunity was great, perhaps the only one in this championship.
“I was ready for a medal,” she added. “I should not have a worse start than Marit, because it is not her specialty, and I was weaker. I have to blame myself for it. If I could kick, I would have kicked. I have not watched the final [from behind].”
Bjørgen was complimentary of Kowalczyk’s season-best sprint.
“I would say she’s back and is good in classic,” Bjørgen said in the conference. “It’s great to see her there, and I really wanted her to be there.”
Among the semifinalists who ended up in the top 12, Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen placed seventh, Slovakia’s Alena Prochazkogva was eighth, Brun-Lie placed ninth, Sophie Caldwell of the U.S. was 10th, Slovenia’s Katja Visnar 11th, and Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter 12th.
Stay tuned for a complete North American report.
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.