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Overcast skies greeted the skiers as they lined up for a 15 k skiathlon Saturday morning, the second World Championship event in Oberstdorf, Germany. Despite temperatures hovering around 37°F, the tracks were firm and fast, the course consisting of two classic laps of a 3.75 k loop and two skate laps of a different 3.75 k loop. Sixty women started the competition though with a few athletes getting lapped, the finishers numbered 56. With little fanfare in an otherwise stark ski course during the pandemic, Therese Johaug of Norway was the show. At the end of the day, Johaug once again topped the podium in a time of 38:35.5, though this wasn’t purely a given early in classic leg.
Immediately off the line, Johaug was at the front, pushing the pace. Two young Swedes, Ebba Andersson and Frida Karlsson weren’t about to let her take off and stuck to her like glue. As the three skiers descended towards the stadium at the end of the first lap on a ribbon of white snow through bare brown fields, it looked as if the top three had already been decided. Exiting a sharp right-hand corner Johaug’s skis slid out into Karlsson and both skiers went down. Andersson capitalized on the moment to take the lead. Righting herself, Johaug rebounded quickly. Karlsson, however, ended up with a broken pole and compounded with a botched hand-off to receive a replacement, she found herself +17.5 seconds down to the leaders.
At the 5 k mark, Karlsson had clawed back a few seconds and was +13 behind Johaug, Andersson, and Tatiana Sorina representing the Russian Ski Federation.
Entering the exchange Johaug and Andersson were neck and neck, the Swede echoing Johaug’s every move. However, Andersson was four seconds slower than Johaug swapping skis and exiting. This little gap was all the Norwegian needed to shake her Swedish shadow.
Behind Johaug and Andersson, over the next lap, the Russian gradually began to fade, as Karlsson closed in on Sorina. Up front, Johaug motored while Andersson barely held on to the Norwegian.
Johaug simply began to gain ground and time on her rivals as the remaining kilometers ticked off. She worked her advantage on the hills and began to widen the gap as Karlsson clawed back to Andersson. At 9 k the two Swedes were +19 seconds back from Johaug, at 11.3 k Johaug had increased that to +27 seconds and by 12.8 k, the gap was +33 seconds.
In the closing meters, all Johaug needed to do was stay upright through the descent and the victory was hers. “Oh it’s amazing,” said Johaug after the race, “I’m looking forward to this day for so long and I’m training a lot and the Norwegian team has not got so much World Cup this year so this World Championships means a lot to me.” Laughing she said, “I know that everybody thinks that I should win but it’s not so easy, you have to fight for yourself and you have to have good skis though the waxer in the team Norway has done a really good job”
When asked about her fall on the first lap, Johaug seemed unphased, “Oh I fall on the first lap in the stadium here, but I was feeling I have a really good body today and my shape is really good so it didn’t mean so much.”
For Johaug this is her fifth skiathlon championship podium and third gold after winning in 2015 and 2019. Her win puts the total number of medals she has collected at world championship events up to 11, only Norway’s Marit Bjørgen and Elena Välbe of Russia have more (18 and 14 respectively).
Behind Johaug, the race for second and third was real – Karlsson and Andersson no-pole skated to the line, as Karlsson entered the straight with a slight lead though her teammate was closing fast. Karlsson took silver just +0.2 ahead of Andersson. Teresa Stadlober of Austria out sprinted veteran Charlotte Kalla of Sweden to take fourth, Kalla finished fifth. Norwegian youngster Helene Marie Fossesholm came in sixth and Delphine Claudel of France matched her personal best finish, placing 7th.
For Karlsson, this is her second silver medal at a world championship, she finished second in the 10 k classic in Seefeld in 2019. This is Andersson’s first individual world championship medal. She holds medals from 2017 and 2019 as a member of the Swedish relay team, but Saturday’s performance tops her previous best individual championship performance of sixth place in the 30 k skate in Seefeld in 2019.
Leading the American finishers today was Jessie Diggins in 15th, +1:59.5 back from Johaug. “I am going to be honest, it was pretty disappointing if you look at it from a results perspective,” said Diggins after the race, explaining that she felt ski speed on the day was a disadvantage for the team. “However, I was so proud of how hard I pushed and I prepared for these championships in every way possible. I took such great care to train smart, train hard, rest up. Mentally I was ready. Took really good care about not overheating which I was really psyched about. I was dumping bottles of water on myself and chewing ice chunks before the start. So I think I came into this absolutely as ready and prepared as possible. And the thing is, to have a good race all the puzzle pieces have to fit together, and we missed out today.”
When asked about her teammates’ performances, Diggins responded, “They worked so hard. I would have loved to see them have every opportunity to really really shine because I know they could have been further up on the results sheet with the energy and the grit that all these young women displayed. So I think that is so promising to see how well they skied given the disadvantage that we had today. I think, to me, that is really impressive because it is easy to put together a good race when you have the fastest wax in the field, it is harder to just never give up and keep fighting, and to me, that is so much more impressive.”
Competing in her first championship event, Sophie Laukli of the United States finished 25th, +3:18.7 back. After the race Laukli said, “It was a fun course for me, lots of hills and climbing. I mean I was a little bit dreading some of the bigger climbs, but it definitely worked to my advantage. I felt pretty good so that was awesome.”
Laukli’s World Cup debut came a few weeks ago in Lahti Finland where she finished 33rd in the skiathlon event. When asked about her strategy for the day Laukli replied, “Yeah, I definitely think of myself as more of a skate skier so my goal was to try and stick with a group in the classic and then make up some more places in the skate and I think that I was definitely able to do that and really use the hills to my advantage in the end.”
Katharine Ogden was the next American finisher in 32nd place and Hailey Swirbul finished 37th. Before the race, Swirbul spoke with FIS saying, “I feel ready to go, this is my first race at my first World Championships. All I can hope is to give my best effort today.”
Interview with U.S. Head Coach Whitcomb discussing the classic sprint and skiathlon.
Cendrine Browne was the first Canadian of the day, in 23rd place. During the skiathlon at the 2019 World Championships, Browne finished 40th. Next came Katharine Stewart-Jones in 28th place. Stewart-Jones also placed 28th in the 30 k skate event at the 2019 championships. Rounding out the Canadian finishers was Laura LeClair who placed 48th.
“Today was one of the hardest courses I’ve ever done,” Browne told Nordiq Canada. “No flats, only up hills and twisty downhills,” said Browne, who was 26th in a 30-kilometre skate-ski race at the 2017 World Championships in Lahti, Finland. “I’m really happy and proud that I was able to hold on in the classic part, and be in good position to start the skate.
“The plan today was to hold on in the classic and then catch-up time in the skate,” she added. “Unfortunately, I was only able to maintain the speed I had, but I’m still very happy,” added Browne. “I had a pack to ski with during the whole race which helped me push myself even more.”
“I had some bigger dreams for today, but I honestly gave it my all with what I had on the day,” said Stewart-Jones according to Nordiq Canada. “My start was a bit slow, and I didn’t feel super energetic on the classic, but I was able to find a better rhythm in the skate, especially on the second lap.
“Having two of us in the top-30 (again today) is definitely a good start, but I know that we have more in the tank, and I’m looking forward to some more racing,” said Stewart-Jones.
Racing continues Sunday with a team sprint event.
Results: Womens Skiathlon
Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.