PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Three days before the 4 x 5-kilometer women’s relay event, Norway’s Marit Bjørgen sat in the PyeongChang Olympic press-conference room. A table and a black mic served as the only separation between the five-time Olympian, and a group of reporters eagerly awaiting to pick her brain.
She had just tied for third in the women’s 10 k freestyle and had been fielding questions about her bronze-medal performance when the conversation took a momentary turn.
The inquiry on the table prodded Bjørgen for her thoughts about the upcoming team relay. The Norwegian’s response seemed simple, yet seasoned with wisdom: “The relay is the relay,” she said with a laugh.
Going into Saturday’s team competition, many may have assumed that the relay was Norway’s race to lose. But Bjørgen’s remark hinted at the broader felicitousness of predictability on the stage of events like the Winter Games. In the last five Olympic cycles, Norway has taken first only once. That gold came at the Vancouver Games in 2010.
Otherwise, Norway has finished in second (Lillehammer in 1994 to Russia; Nagano in 1998 to Russia, Salt Lake in 2002 to Germany) or not on the podium at all. In Torino in 2006, the Norwegian women finished in fifth and repeated that result in Sochi in 2014.
All but two of those Olympic relay teams have featured Bjørgen. Her comment in the PyeongChang press conference may be a tacit reminder that a relay podium, even for a powerhouse cross-country nation like Norway, is never secure until every racer crosses the line.
On Saturday it seemed she and her team would relive their more frequent results of the past. Racing the first leg, Norwegian Ingvild Flugstad Østberg kept the team in the mix. She chased down Russia’s Natalia Nepryaeva throughout the blistering first-classic leg pace and the two came into the exchange together along with Slovenia’s Anamarija Lampic.
Almost 20 seconds behind the lead group was Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen and another 5 seconds behind the Finn was Sweden’s Anna Haag. In the lead group’s exchange, Østberg tagged off to Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, Nepryaeva to Yulia Belorukova, and Lampic to Katja Visnar for the second classic leg.
As the those three began striding the initial climb, Saarinen came into the exchange to tag off to Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen, while Haag handed off to Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla.
“I did what I could to keep up with them, just trying to not lose that [many] seconds,” Haag said during a press conference. “I really did what I could, but then I was so tired on the top of the last uphill that I could barely ski downhill.”
If Kalla wanted to put Sweden in the mix for a medal, she would need to make up 25.5 seconds over the course of 5 k.
It didn’t take long for the Swede to silence any doubt as to whether she could. She raced the fastest second classic leg, catching not only Niskanen in her first 2.5 k lap, but later swallowing Jacobsen and Visnar during her second lap. The Swede found even more seconds in the final climb and Team Sweden was in second by the time Kalla rounded the course’s final turn back toward the stadium.
“It was a very inspiring position to go out hunting,” Kalla said at Saturday’s post-race press conference. “And I know that it’s important for me to take some time to get in the right mode and not stress too much. I had really good skis, so it was just to relax in my shoulders and try to have a good position in the double poling. I knew that every second that I could catch up for Ebba and Stina would be important.”
Team Russia was number one through the second exchange, with Belorukova tagging off to Anastasia Sedova for the first freestyle leg. Hot on the Russian’s heels was Sweden’s Ebba Andersson, spurred by Kalla’s strong classic leg.
Niskanen was the next skier through in third, skiing just 8.4 seconds away from the silver medal. She tagged off to Riitta-Liisa Roponen for Finland’s first skate leg.
After having bled even more time, Jacobsen came through the exchange in fourth. Almost 30 seconds now separated Norway from the win and even a shot at the bronze was 19.7 seconds away.
Jacobsen tagged off to Norwegian Ragnhild Haga, a good pick if Norway wanted to return to the top three. Haga earned her first Olympic gold medal in Thursday’s 10 k freestyle, and on Saturday she appeared to be searching to add one more.
Within the first 2.5 k, Haga reeled Roponen in and left her in the dust as she headed out for her second lap. She continued to push the pace and by the end of her 5 k leg, Haga put her team back into contention for gold. As Team Norway came through the exchange, their time back from Sweden and Russia was no longer 30 seconds, but down to three.
Andersson tagged off to Sweden’s Stina Nilsson, while Sedova handed off to Russia’s Anna Nechaevskaya. Taking the anchor leg for Norway was Bjørgen.
The Norwegian quickly chased down the three second gap to Nilsson. Their red and white Scandinavian suits soon broke free of Russia in maroon.
At this point, the safest way for Bjørgen to secure gold would be to avoid a sprint between herself and the Swede. However, the two raced in tandem throughout the first 2.5 k, Nilsson shadowing the Norwegian’s every move. As they started their second lap, Bjørgen still couldn’t shake her from the back of her skis. Heading into the final climb it was Norway and Sweden together, Bjørgen leading by just half an inch.
Halfway through, Bjørgen put in a surge. The gap was not much, but perhaps just enough. She crested the hill ahead of the Swede and led the final descent. The two cornered to the final 100 meters, Bjørgen barely poling ahead. The Norwegian managed to hold off any attack from the Swede and crossed first with a team time of 51:24.3 for gold.
“Stina looked really strong. We all know how strong she is in the last 100 meters,” Østberg said during a press conference. “But Marit, she is one hell of a skier … I was so nervous and extremely happy when she managed to beat [Nilsson] in the last 100 meters.”
Nilsson crossed 2 seconds later bring Sweden silver, and Nechaevskaya crossed third (+43.3) to earn Russia bronze.
“First of all I am extremely happy I must say, that’s number one. And secondly it’s true that we are going exactly in the right direction,” Belorukova said at the press conference. “We are getting stronger year on year and more powerful, and I should say given the current situation maybe we are also getting more [tough] as we fight our way along. And this is not going to be the last medal.”
Just outside the medals, Finland placed fourth (+1:02.6) and the U.S. finished fifth (+1:20.5) for its best Olympic result. Germany was sixth (+1:49.4), Switzerland seventh (+1:51.5), Slovenia eighth (+2:31.4), Italy ninth (+2:57.7), and Poland 10th (+3:06.6). Canada finished 13th (+4:50.3) of 14 teams.
— Jason Albert, Harald Zimmer and Alex Kochon 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.