First she qualified in 15th place in the World Cup classic sprint on Friday. For her next move, Norway’s Therese Johaug won the 5 k skate by more than she has ever won a race so short.
In fact, it was just the fifth time Johaug has won a 5 k in her career. Once was at World Junior Championships. The most recent was a 0.3-second win over teammate Marit Bjørgen in Lillehammer last year.
But at this year’s opening World Cup weekend in Kuusamo, Finland, Johaug opened up and took a 17.6-second victory over Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, a woman assumed to be Johaug’s main rival for the overall World Cup title this season.
Usually more dominant as the distance gets longer, Johaug is showing that she’s quite a danger in shorter competitions as well.
“This was not a good distance for me before, but in recent years I have worked extensively on my strength and speed,” Johaug told Norwegian broadcaster NRK after her win on Saturday. “It is very fun for me to see that I managed myself so well.”
Although it likely wouldn’t have changed the final standings, Kalla fell on a steep uphill near the end of the race course.
“It was quickly rebuilt,” Kalla said when Swedish tabloid Expressen asked about how the fall affected her speed. “It’s a bit annoying, but it can happen any time.”
Kalla wasn’t thrilled with how far behind Johaug she found herself.
“I started quietly,” she told NRK, according to a translation. “But then I heard that the gap was really going up. Therese was very strong last year and she’s not any worse this year.”
Kalla’s teammate Ida Ingemarsdotter took third, 25.4 seconds behind Johaug. While Johaug impressed at a distance that’s shorter than her usual forte, it was the opposite for the Swede: the finish was Ingemarsdotter’s first podium at the World Cup level in a distance longer than a sprint.
“I wanted to stay focused on my speed and technique,” she said in the post-race press conference. “I planned to go as fast as possible from the second last uphill before the stadium.”
Her push landed her just 0.6 seconds ahead of Norway’s Heidi Weng, and 1.5 seconds ahead of Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, the Norwegian who placed second in yesterday’s sprint.
“I did not really know it was so close between me and Heidi,” said Ingemarsdotter, who with a fifth place finish in the sprint now owns the yellow overall World Cup leader’s jersey. “Tomorrow it will be really interesting and fun race. It will be a big fight.”
Johaug, who isn’t leading the World Cup but with bonus seconds accounted for will be the first woman out of the gate in Sunday’s 10 k classic pursuit, agreed.
“It will become a rat race,” Johaug told NRK of Sunday’s race. “I’m going to have them right behind me, and there are many good girls there.”
Indeed: Østberg will start 0.4 seconds behind her and Weng just 4.9 seconds back. Then there will be Ingemarsdotter 5.7 seconds behind Johaug and teammates Stina Nilsson and Kalla 11.2 and 15.5 seconds back.
Johaug has been excellent in mini-tours as well as the Tour de Ski.
“Under normal circumstances it should go that Johaug wins mini tour,” her national team coach Egil Kristiansen told Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.
But it’s the start of a new season, and you never know. Kalla would usually be seen as the biggest threat; while her fall didn’t cost her the win in Saturday’s race, the few seconds she lost might be more important in the pursuit timing.
And Østberg, Ingemarsdotter, and Nilsson are traditionally best at sprinting, but all three have shown much improved distance skiing this season, whether at early-season FIS races in Beitostølen, Norway, and Bruskvallarna, Sweden, or in the 5 k skate, where Nilsson finished ninth.
So while Johaug might be the favorite to take the mini-tour win, it’s not a foregone conclusion.
“We need to think a little bit,” Kalla told Expressen. “I am staying with Stina and Ida, so we will use our thinking skills and see if we can come up with how to break [Johaug].”
Kerttu Niskanen of Finland placed sixth in the 5 k (+32.6), Norway’s Astrid Jacobsen seventh (+33.5), and her teammate Kari Øyre Slind eighth (+34.8).
Slind had never previously made the top 20 in a World Cup, and only got seven starts in the last five seasons. But in the season-opening FIS races in Beitostølen, she excelled and earned herself new start rights.
“I’m going there to have a good time at the races, enjoy myself and just take things as they come,” she told FasterSkier earlier this week. “I have everything to win and nothing to lose.”
After Nilsson in ninth (+37.4) was Alenka Cebasek of Slovenia (+37.5) in just her second top-ten appearance on the World Cup.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.