If it hadn’t been for the steady bob of her yellow leader’s bib and an intermittent shadow from the sun’s glare cast by the trail’s treeline, Charlotte Kalla might have blended right into the snow: her white suit symbolic of Sweden smooth across the Lillehammer race course in Norway.
As it were, the overall World Cup leader’s bib, her prize from winning last weekend’s battle against Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, could not be contested. Kalla crested the final climb of the women’s 15-kilometer skiathlon on Sunday with no Norwegians in sight, headed toward her second distance win in a row. Her closest competitor was Norway’s Heidi Weng, who finished 19.7 seconds after Kalla crossed the line in 42:24.7.
“It felt good, and when I was on that last climb I felt fine, but didn’t know that Heidi could not follow me,” Kalla said, according to a International Ski Federation (FIS) press release.
From the beginning Kalla commanded the lead, charging the classic portion out of the start. By the 2.5 k mark, the field had reached the course’s major climb, Weng pushing to the front and creating a small gap on the field, pulling Kalla and Austria’s Teresa Stadlober with her.
Leading the second group charge a little over seven seconds back was Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski, followed by Norwegian’s Ragnhild Haga and Kathrine Rolsted Harsem, as well as the U.S. Ski Team’s Jessie Diggins.
In just over a kilometer, Diggins had taken over the helm of the second group’s chase, closing the gap between herself and the leaders by three seconds. By the next kilometer, the crowd had swallowed Stadlober, while Diggins cruised into the third-place position.
“I think that was maybe the best I have classic skied in my entire life. I had amazing skis and I was just feeling really good,” Diggins said during a post-race interview with FasterSkier.
Diggins held onto third through the exchange, after Kalla and Weng had already passed through 21 seconds before.
“I knew that I need an easy classic, before the ski exchange [to] skate,” Kalla said. “Especially when I know how the uphills here are, it’s a very tough and long climb out of the stadium.”
For the first 5 k of the freestyle portion, Kalla trailed Weng by mere milliseconds, matching every two of Weng’s glides with a powerful one of her own.
As the two leaders approached the major climb for the final time, a sideways glance from both created a momentary pause: who wanted the lead?
In the end, it was Weng. She headed up the hill in front of Kalla, the taste of a Norwegian win on home turf in the back of her mouth. But Kalla’s momentary drop from the lead was no mistake; tactics as camouflage to her competitor as her suit in the snow.
Midway through the hill, the Swede made her move, using her powerful V2 to get around Weng and distancing herself from the Norwegian by 12 seconds as she cornered her way back toward the stadium.
“Skating was really tough,” Weng said, according to FIS. “I’m glad I held myself back a little, because Charlotte got really strong on the skating part, and on that last hill I knew she would go ahead. She was in another league. She is in a very good shape.”
Heading into the finishing stretch, Kalla had extended her lead by another seven seconds, waving to the crowd as she crossed first. Following Weng in second was Haga in third place (+43.6).
“I was not satisfied with the first round classic, but I got a bit better after that and I was able to stay in contact with the leader,” Haga said according to FIS. “I felt stronger when we started with freestyle, but then I broke my pole in the last hill and I thought it was over for me regarding a podium position, but then I got a new one from the one of our coaches, and he told me that it was still possible.”
In fourth, 54.3 seconds behind Kalla was Bjørgen, just ahead of Diggins in fifth (+57.0).
“She put herself right in the race to be a contender for the podium today,” USST Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb said of Diggins during a post-race phone interview. “It got away from her … but it’s really encouraging, particularly on a course as challenging as this one is in Lillehammer, that Jessie can fight in the top five like that.”
“I think she’s coming out of yesterday with a lot of confidence in her classic skiing, having made the sprint final,” Whitcomb continued. “In the past it’s more been about damage control in the classic leg, and now it’s about doing damage to others.”
Rounding out the top 10 was Stadlober in sixth (+1:04.9), Pärmäkoski in seventh (+1:07.8), Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg in eighth (+1:26.0), Russia’s Natalia Nepryaeva in ninth (+1:27.8), and a second USST member, Sadie Bjornsen in 10th (+1:32.6).
“She’s just been turning heads, demonstrating such great fitness and composure as she races in some pretty high stress situations,” Whitcomb said of Bjornsen. “Really strong all weekend.”
After coming through the exchange in 23rd, Kikkan Randall (USST) worked her way up to 16th (+2:06.5) by the end of the freestyle portion of the race.
“Had a good start but lost some ground on the first time up the big climb,” Randall wrote in an email to media outlets. “Found a better groove in the second classic lap and felt much stronger in the skate. Underlying fitness feels strong but still searching for my full race gear. Great conditions, even saw a bit of sun out there!”
Also scoring World Cup points for the USST on Sunday was Rosie Brennan 29th (+3:07.7).
“The harder the course, the more promising things get for Rosie,” Whitcomb said. “She’s just a worker out there. She can really drop it into low gear and pick off people on these big climbs. She’s been skiing the descents really aggressively; it makes sense that she hit the top 30 today.”
Also racing for the U.S., Liz Stephen finished 36th (+3:25.7), Chelsea Holmes 38th (+3:39.6) and Ida Sargent 55th (+6:41.1).
“Chelsea, in what is generally not her strong technique, was able to climb up into the top 30 in the classic portion of the skiathlon. That was really nice to see.” Whitcomb said. “She can certainly do really well in this event, particularly if she skis the way she did in parts of that classic race.”
Cendrine Browne led Canada in 45th (+4:37.3) while her teammate Emily Nishikawa followed in 49th (+5:00.1). Katherine Stewart-Jones did not finish.
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.