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 — Mördarbacken, or “murder-hill”, has its name for a reason. It’s a long, steep pitch where competitors either sucumb to fatigue or thrive on the challenge of the climb. Such was the case in Saturday’s 7.5-kilometer classic + 7.5-kilometer freestyle skiathlon at the 2015 FIS World Ski Championships. Norway’s Therese Johaug embraced the challenge of her last time on the hill and powered ahead of teammate Astrid Jacobsen and Charlotte Kalla of Sweden in to take her first-ever win in a championship skiathlon.
Johaug held the lead and collapsed across the finish line to earn her third individual World Championship. She ended her 15 k effort with a time of 40:57.6, over five seconds ahead the heated battle for second between home-crowd favorite Kalla and Jacobsen. In the end Jacobsen crossed the line ahead of Kalla by 0.3 seconds to take silver. The two finished 5.7 and 6.0 seconds behind Johaug, respectively.
Saturday’s skiathlon started in typical fashion with defending World Champion, Marit Bjørgen, commanding the charge out of the stadium with a group of fellow Norwegians, Swedes and Finns hot on her tail. The pace was relaxed and roughly 30 skiers grouped together in the first kilometers.
Unsatisfied with the speed of the pack, Johaug took charge from her teammate and quickened the tempo. The Norwegian and Kalla traded the lead throughout the majority of the first 7.5 k as the fight for gold was narrowed to six skiers, with the two leaders plus Jacobsen, Bjørgen, Kerttu Niskanen of Finland, and Sofia Bleckur of Sweden all within 10 seconds.
As the group entered the freestyle portion, Johaug explained she began to tire and questioned her aggressive tactics in the race’s classic portion. “I wanted to go out hard from the start, but when I came into the swap zone from the classical part I thought I maybe had gone out too tough,” the world champion said in a press conference. Given her fatigue, the 26-year-old rested behind Jacobsen and Kalla as they exited the stadium.
Clocking the second-fastest pit time, Jacobsen left the exchange in first. The Norwegian explained that she hadn’t planned to be at the front so early given her starting spot but was pleased to find herself skiing with Johaug for much of the classic portion.
“I wasn’t good seeded so I started on the third line but everything opened up and I could go behind Therese. She’s skiing so well right now, but it’s easy to follow her because she has good rhythm,” Jacobsen said.” When Therese attacked first on the classic, then I just thought that I should try and follow.”
Jacobsen skied with large, bold glides as she led Kalla and Johaug into the second half of the course. She knew her skiing was strong but expected to see a large train of women following close behind. Instead, Jacobsen, Kalla and Johaug skied alone, with defending world champion Bjørgen nowhere in sight. “I was surprised that we were suddenly only three left because I thought there was going to be a big line behind,” she said.
With roughly seven kilometers left, Kalla took the lead and increased the pace with Johaug hot on her tail. While Jacobsen struggled on many of the climbs, she made contact with the two skiers on the downhills.
As the three started up Mördarbaken for the last time, Johaug made a decisive move. Swerving around a slowing Kalla, the Norwegian began to jump-skate the steep hill to accept its challenge wholeheartedly. The move was successful, as Johaug lengthened her lead over the two skiers with each stride. By the time she reached the top of Mördatbacken at the 12.5 k mark, Jacobsen and Kalla trailed by 5.1 seconds and 11.3 seconds, respectively.
“My chance was to attack on the last hill,” Johaug said. “I tried and I made a gap. My legs was really stiff to the top, but I tried to work really hard with myself so I could pass the finish line that know I that I was the World Championship.”
Jacobsen attempted to stay with her teammate but after several meters knew the attempt was futile. “When she attacked again on skating it was just game over,” Jacobsen said. “I tried to follow but I had no chance.”
With gold all but secured for Johaug, the race became a heated fight for second. Jacobson’s attempt to stay with Johaug cost her precious energy and Kalla soon caught her. For the remaining 2 k, Kalla gained a narrow lead on each of the uphills while Jacobsen surged back on the downhills.
The game of cat and mouse was almost over as Norwegian and Swede entered the stadium together. The two rounded the U-turn and jostled for the best lane into the finish. Afterwards, Jacobsen said the fight gave her extra energy to out-sprint Kalla across the line.
“When Charlotte caught me again, then I felt ‘ok, I need to stay on two feet so you can take the last medal.’ But when I came down to the stadium, I practiced so much on this last climb on the stadium, I just had to do it as well as I did in training yesterday,” Jacobson explained. “Then we were fighting towards the finish line, like what lane to take. I felt a bit provoked so I got more energy.”
Johaug, who started Saturday’s race as one of the favorites, explained that the skiathlon victory was something she had been working towards all season. “It was a dream here to take gold medal,” she said in a press conference. “I have trained more than a thousand hours over the past year to experience this. I really love the course here, it’s my type of course.”
She said the roughly 45,000 fans who lined the course gave her energy as she climbed Mördarbacken. Johaug added that it was great to have such a heated competition between two rivals, Norway and Sweden, in front of die-hard fans from both countries.
Although she was unable to match the form of her teammate, Jacobsen compared her silver medal to a win. It was her first individual World Championships medal in eight years after earning gold and two bronze in Sapporo, Japan.
The years since have been filled with difficulty for the 26-year-old. Just one day before the start of the 2014 Olympic Games, her brother and training partner passed away unexpectedly, causing emotional hardship for the Norwegian throughout the event and remainder of the year. Later that season she crashed into a lamppost in the Holmenkollen 30 k and was rushed to the hospital. With no serious injuries resulting from the crash, Jacobsen began what looked to be a productive training season that spring. By the fall of 2014, however, Jacobsen told NRK that her body was no longer responding to training.
Jacobsen started the year’s World Cup circuit in Lillehammer, Norway, where she placed in the 30s. Her next World Cup came after a long break when she won the 10 k freestyle in Rybinsk in late January. Although Jacobsen’s participation in World Championships appeared to be a longshot at the turn of the year, her win in Russia along with a strong Norwegian National Championships, secured her spot in Falun.
Jacobsen told FasterSkier that her main goal in Saturday’s skiathlon was to enjoy racing and allow the experience to sink in. “My biggest goal was just to go out there and enjoy and have fun. This is the World Championships and it’s our biggest feast. I just decided that I didn’t want the seriousness to take all the space, so my goal was to enjoy today and just suck in all the good atmosphere,” she explained.
Jacobsen said that racing Kalla in front of the large Swedish and Norwegian crowds was a memorable experience that motivated her throughout the 15 k. The Norwegian explained that she races best when she’s positive and enjoys what’s she’s doing.
“To ski out there today was awesome because [there were] so many Norwegians and even more Swedes. This dual between Charlotte and me made the crowds go crazy. These 40 minutes went away so fast,” she said to Fasterskier. “I created some really good memories, and that was my biggest goal.”
With her third place, Kalla earned her first individual World Championships medal in front of a home crowd. She explained in a press conference that an individual medal was her main goal of the 2015 season. “I’m very happy to have an individual world champion medal. I have worked hard for this and it has been a special season for me,” she said.
According to the Swede, the pressure from the home crowd was nerve-wracking but ultimately motivating.
“I was quite nervous today in the morning getting into the competition area. I saw from my hotel window that there was a lot of audience going to the Lugnet,” she explained. “When I came to the track and started to test the skis I just focused everything good during the warmup. It was fantastic to go on Mördarbacken and hear all the audience because they were cheering for me and I felt that everyone was there for me to do a really good race today.”
Finishing sixth, Bjørgen ended her day far from where many expected. She explained that Johaug’s pace was too fast for her to maintain contact.
“It was tough for me out there today. My body just wasn’t there. I felt it as soon as Therese surged on Mördarbacken the first time. I just had to let go,” Bjørgen said to Norwegian reporters. “It was too hard when we had to ski hard and fast for a longer period than the sprint.”
While the World Cup points leader was unable to achieve her quest in Saturday’s skiathlon to tie Russian Elena Välbe for the most World Ski Championships wins, Bjørgen said she was happy to see Jacobsen on the podium given the hardships she has faced.
“She deserved this medal after all she’s been through this last year, starting with the death of her brother during the Sochi Olympics and then illness and injuries all through the summer and fall,” Bjørgen said.
Racing continues Sunday in Falun with the men’s and women’s team sprint competition.
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.