From start to finish on Saturday, Norway’s Therese Johaug commanded the front without missing a beat.
By the 5 k mark, the top seven skiers, which included Norwegians Ingvild Flugstad Østberg and Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, Austrian Teresa Stadlober, Sweden’s Ebba Andersson and Frida Karlsson and American Jessie Diggins, as well as Johaug, had a close to 30 second gap on the field’s remaining 41 starters.
But for anyone familiar with Johaug, it isn’t enough to just be in the front.
In another kilometer and a half, the Norwegian had separated herself completely from the pack. Anyone looking to challenge her for the gold medal win had a 15 second gap to close. By the 8.6 k mark, that deficit had grown to 30 seconds.
Andersson and Karlsson led the group charging for second place, which almost a third of the way through the race, was a battle between Diggins, the two Swedes, Stadlober, Østberg and Switzerland’s Nathalie von Siebenthal.
Diggins began to pull at the front of that chase group at the 9 k mark, maintaining her press for the next 5 k. Johaug, however, continued to hold them off.
“I felt really good today,”Johaug said during an interview with the International Ski Federation (FIS) after Saturday’s 30 kilometer mass start. “I wanted to go fast from the beginning. When I get a gap I think I have to try. Then I just went as fast as I could all the way.”
When Johaug exchanged skis at the 18.75 k mark, she had entered all too familiar race territory as the solo frontrunner. Forty-three seconds after Johaug’s ski switch, Diggins had also swapped boards and was once again, leading the chase group.
The American medal favorite for Saturday’s race, Diggins was also looking to best her previous highest ranked World Championships 30 k result, which prior to Saturday was a 5th place in the Lahti World Champs 30 k skate.
By the top of the next major course climb, Diggins faced a challenge from behind. Karlsson swept past her, appearing to have an untapped energy reserve with still close to 10 k to go.
At the 22.5 k mark, Østberg passed Diggins and the American slipped into fourth place with more than two thirds of the race complete. Though Diggins was visibly working, she could not bridge the gap back up to second and third place.
Having maintained her blistering pace in the front, Johaug crossed first in a time of 1 1:14:26.2 hours for the gold medal. Østberg finished 36.8 later for second place, while Karlsson crossed 7.2 seconds behind Østberg to snag third place (+44.0).
With the 30 k capping this season’s World Champs women’s events, Johaug will depart Seefeld with three gold medals–the 30-year-old Norwegian also won the 10 k classic race earlier in the week, as well as last Saturday’s skiathlon.
“I am really happy for the gold today,” Johaug told FIS. “I came here to Seefeld hoping for one gold medal and now I have three.”
Johaug now has a grand total of 10 World Championships gold medals, seven of those being individual accomplishments. The second place finish is Østberg’s fifth podium at the Seefeld World Champs alone. Prior to Seefeld, she had one World Champs medal to her name, a gold from the 2015 Team Sprint in Falun.
The 19-year-old-Karlsson will close out her first World Champs with three medals: Saturday’s 30 k bronze, as well as a silver from the 10 k classic and a gold from the women’s 4 x 5 k relay.
Finishing 20 seconds off the podium was Diggins in fourth (+1:05.9).
“I tried everything I could and I had the best skis in the world,” Diggins said. “It’s funny, I think if the race had been 2 k longer I might not have made it because my legs were cramping up…I did everything I could I held nothing back and that’s a good feeling.”
“I tried to go with [Karlsson]” Diggins said of her third lap when the Swede made her move around the American. “But that’s when my legs started cramping up and I still had 5 k to go. … I was just at my limit, fighting the whole way,” Diggins said.
Following Diggins, U.S. skier Sadie Bjornsen finished the day in 15th (+4:42.9). Bjornsen explained that due to the hot pace from the start, she lost contact with the lead group earlier on in the race.
“I definitely spent some kilometers out there struggling and wanting to drop out and I guess questioning where I’m at,” Bjornsen said of the beginning of her race.
Mid-way through the 30 k, Russian skier Anastasia Sedova joined Bjornsen and as the two skied together, Bjornsen began to feel better. Though her finish was not as strong as she would have liked, the ups and downs of the race offered Bjornsen a bit of insight.
“It was definitely one of those races that had some good moments and some bad moments and I think in a way it was really good for me because it kind of made me assess where I’m at right now,” Bjornsen said. “I think that my body is in a really good place. I think that keeping your brain in a really good place as an athlete is really difficult and maybe something that I struggled with this week.”
For Bjornsen, this World Champs has had its challenges, not so much with her skiing, but as she explained, with her skis and confidence.
“I definitely feel really good skiing out there so I know that my muscles are ready, I just need to make sure that I get my mind there,” Bjornsen said. “It’s just so hard because you can’t control what you have on your feet a lot of the times. And I think I just have to get to a place that that doesn’t affect me. That I keep my belief through it. So I’m looking forward to challenging myself for the last block of the season with that.”
“At this level you have to have your skis at a level that can compete,” she added. “If you’re going to fight for a medal or even Top 10, Top 20 and there were some races this week that that was not the case.”
Following Bjornsen, American Rosie Brennan placed 16th (+5:21.0). After battling mono last season and not being renamed to the U.S. Ski Team, Brennan remained positive of where she’s taken her skiing this year leading up to and during World Championships in Seefeld.
“I never really know what I am going to feel in a month or so,” Brennan said. “I feel so proud of myself for having navigated last year or last summer basically and come out stronger. I hope that that is a clear message that is sent to everybody. I hope that inspires juniors to not be afraid of when something bad comes along or when they have a hiccup or they miss out on the pipeline that is the perfect pipeline or whatever it is.
“It motivates me to keep going and I want to be that example,” Brennan continued. “I want to be that person that doesn’t give up because something bad has been put in front of them. It also taught me that maybe I do know myself best.”
With Wednesday’s doping arrests in Seefeld, both Brennan and Bjornsen saw the news as disappointing.
“The way I look at it, it makes me really proud of what I have accomplished doing it in a clean way,” Brennan said. “I just look at those guys and think they have just ruined their lives. And they have no future in skiing now and that is not why I do this. That is not a place I want to ever be in.
“As shocking as it is, it makes me really proud of who I am,” Brennan added. “I try focusing on that aspect of that and not wonder what else is going on in the field. Those guys are a pretty good example, here they were doing some really bad things and they weren’t winning races. I don’t know that you have to do that to win and I choose not to believe that otherwise there is no sense in going out and fighting. I believe you can do it cleanly and I am going to try my hardest to do that.”
Racing for Canada, Katherine Stewart-Jones crossed in 28th (+8:17.9) for her best career individual World Champs result.
Placing just outside the Top 30 was American Caitlin Patterson in 34th (+8:49.4). Canadians Emily Nishikawa placed 39th (+10.11.5), Dahria Beatty 41st (+11:34.5), and Cendrine Browne 46th (+14.50.0).
–Jason Albert contributed reporting
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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.