There are a lot of things Marit Bjørgen is not. She is not the only woman on Norway’s national team who knows how to win. She is not in the early stages of her cross-country career — her first World Cup debut came in December 1999. In comparison to many of her Norwegian teammates, she is not young. The average age of Norway’s women competing in Saturday’s 10-kilometer freestyle individual start in Ulricehamn, Sweden, (Bjørgen not included) was 25.
At 36, Bjørgen’s age bests most of her teammates by close to a decade.
But the new mom is also not letting any of that stop her from adding to her cache of cross-country wins. Saturday being the first opportunity she had since her last race in La Clusaz, France, to prove that winning is what she does.
“It’s so much fun to be back because I’ve been on my own for five weeks,” Bjørgen told NRK after Saturday’s race. “At least now I know that I’m on the right path.”
However, starting the Ulricehamn 10 k in bib 40, with 21 more racers still hungrily eyeing her back, Bjørgen would not know for sure if she made the right choice until the final starters behind her, including the likes of Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, completed the course.
Bjørgen’s Norwegian teammate Heidi Weng and Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski — who both competed in this year’s Tour de Ski and finished first and second, respectively, in the overall — and started before Bjørgen, were also challenging her choice to forego five weeks of racing.
Pärmäkoski was first to the front, leading both Weng and Bjørgen by exactly one second at the 1.5 k mark.
Weng went next, this time Bjørgen and Pärmäkoski trailing behind by less than a second with 7 k still to go. Continually creeping up toward the top three was Kalla in fourth, less than four seconds back and American Jessie Diggins in fifth, within six seconds of the front.
But with one 5 k lap down, Bjørgen began to break through.
At 6.5 k, she had put close to three seconds into the Finn, now sitting in second place and more than 15 seconds into her teammate Weng, who had faded to fifth.
With 2 k to go, Bjørgen continued to lead, while Kalla moved into third. The Swede, however, had no idea she was within 14 seconds of the front. The volume of a home crowd had her confused, thinking she was in 14th place instead.
“It was all of the noise from the eager Swedish spectators that created the confusion, in addition to a sign with the number 14 on it,” Kalla told adressa.no. “It probably meant that I was 14 seconds behind, but I misunderstood.”
With no intentional charge coming from Kalla, and Pärmäkoski pushing to the max of her 10 k skate pace, Bjørgen furthered her push for the win. She continued to put time into Pärmäkoski, ultimately finishing 10.7 seconds ahead of her in a time of 23:46.3 for her 104th individual World Cup title.
When asked about the difference between her start and finishing speed, the Norwegian, who now also holds 22 individual wins on Swedish soil, responded with a bit of humor.
“I’m starting to get old you know, it takes a while to get going,” Bjørgen told NRK.
With a second place on Saturday, Pärmäkoski now has six individual podiums this season.
“I had a great day,” Pärmäkoski said according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release. “I have proven to myself I can ski fast also in free technique.”
Finishing 24.9 seconds behind Bjørgen, Kalla claimed the final podium spot in third, although unbeknownst to her until she received congratulations from Bjørgen and her Swedish teammate Hanna Falk, who finished eighth (+36.4).
“I first realized that I had finished 3rd when Marit and Hanna gave a hug,” Kalla told adressa.no.
“The audience [today] was world-class,” she added, according to a FIS press release.
Four American Women in the Top 25
Despite Saturday being an individual start, the two-lap 10 k course meant quite a few racers wound up skiing in company. For many of the American racers, that company came from their U.S. teammates.
Though she started 30 seconds behind her fellow U.S. Ski Team (USST) member Kikkan Randall, Jessie Diggins in bib 32 soon managed to catch Randall in bib 31. The 25-year-old Diggins proceeded to pass her and lead Randall through the first of two laps.
“I didn’t have the snappy good feelings I was hoping to have in my body today, but it was a solid race,” Diggins, who finished seventh (+34.9), wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
“It’s always hard when you know that on your best days you are capable of more, but at the same time we had great skis, and it was really fun for me to be able to ski with my teammates today!” she added.
By the end of Diggins’s and Randall’s first lap together, their USST teammate Sadie Bjornsen cruised on course. For the next lap, Bjornsen led the trio of U.S. skiers.
“Skating has been going well this year. I have a lot more confidence every time I start a race, so that is fun,” Bjornsen said on the phone after Saturday’s race.
The U.S. trade-off train continued, with Bjornsen in bib 56 catching another USST member Rosie Brennan — who had start 30 seconds ahead of her in bib 55 — for their last lap.
“It was an American line out there,” Bjornsen added, who ended the day as the second American in 12th (+1:00.5).
The ‘American line,’ at least with Bjornsen, was something Brennan anticipated.
“You never really want to get caught but … I love skiing with Sadie and so it was great to have her pull me into the finish,” Brennan said on the phone.
Brennan further explained that having the comfort of a teammate, whose strengths and weakness could compliment her own, also made the pass more appreciated.
“When some of these other fast girls come past you, [because] you’ve never skied with them before, it’s hard to truly believe you can keep up with them, but when it is someone you have spent so much time skiing with it was easy to convince myself like ‘oh of course I can stay with her’.” said Brennan, who ultimately finished 24th (+1:30.7).
The one American who did not see any of her U.S. teammates during the race was Liz Stephen, who started 14th and finished the day in 16th (+1:07.30).
Instead, Stephen found herself racing with another familiar face, Italy’s Virginia de Martin Topranin, who spent time training with Stephen on Eagle Glacier this summer.
“We skied part of a lap together,” Stephen said on the phone. “But other than that I didn’t see anybody out there, which is good. That’s the point of an individual start … Mass starts you get to see plenty of people, sometimes it feels good just to be by yourself.”
The fifth American woman to finish was Randall in 40th (+1:59.6) followed by Liz Guiney, the Period 1 SuperTour leader from the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, in 52nd (+2:33.2).
“Competing in Ulricehamn was pretty awesome today,” Randall wrote in an email to several media outlets. “The course was packed with some of the most enthusiastic fans I’ve ever seen! It was a pretty cool course, too. Deceptively hard with a lot of gradual terrain and not many places to recover.
“I had great skis today and a couple of really good opportunities to ski with my teammates,” she added. “But unfortunately I wasn’t able to fully capitalize on those rides and had a lackluster day. I had a decent race from about 2.5km to 7.5km but wasn’t able to keep the pedal down.”
USST Head Coach Chris Grover noted that while there won’t be a 10 freestyle event at World Championships in a little over a month, the U.S. women’s team performance on Saturday was a good sign of where their training has taken them and where they are headed.
“Of course you are always … hoping that we are going to have a podium but that’s not going to happen every day,” Grover said. “I think it is an excellent indication that we have a lot of women who are extremely fit and on the right day they can have some pretty extraordinary results.”
The lone Canadian woman competing on Saturday in Ulricehamn, Cendrine Browne, of Canada’s national U25 Team, posted her career-best individual World Cup result in 35th (+1:52.0).
“Along the race the coaches were telling me, ‘You’re five seconds away from top 30!’ ” Browne recalled on the phone after. “So I was really trying to push harder. I was a little tired at the end, so next time I’d like to be less tired, but I guess you can’t really control that.”
Browne explained that though most of her teammates remained in North America in order to prep for U23 or senior World Championships, she felt traveling to Europe and racing the World Cup was what she need to best prep for the upcoming Lahti cross-country events.
“I had the choice to stay home, and train, and do races at home, but I also had the choice to come here and race instead, and I really love racing on the World Cup,” Browne explained.
Athletes return tomorrow for the women’s 4 x 5 k relay. The U.S. women’s squad will field two teams, one with Brennan, Bjornsen, Stephen, and Diggins in bib 4, and the other with Randall, Sargent, Sophie Caldwell, and Guiney in bib 9.
“I’m really looking forward to anchoring one of our TWO relay teams tomorrow!” Diggins wrote. “It’s really special for us to be able to field two teams and relays are my absolute favorite days. Time to break out the relay socks!”
“So fun to see my teammates ski well today which has us all fired up for tomorrow’s relays!” Randall wrote. “Really pumped that we are fielding two women’s teams!”
— Aleks Tangen, Ian Tovell, Jake Ellis and Chelsea Little contributed
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.