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A blanket of fresh snow lay on the ground while the frozen rocky peaks of the Bavarian Alps peaked through the clouds. Finally, Oberstdorf, Germany looked like a wintery venue.
With temperatures that might feel brisk relative to the tropical heatwave earlier in the week, the women’s field took to the tracks for their final event of the 2021 World Championships: a 30-kilometer mass start classic.
To set the stage for today’s race, one should first look back to the 2019 World Championships, which featured a 30 k freestyle, and the 30 k classic at last year’s Holmenkollen in Oslo, the last World Cup race to take place before the season was truncated due to the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Let’s glance at the World Champs in Seefeld, Austria, where Norway’s Therese Johaug led the field through the first 5 k, then pulled away. She gapped the field by more than 30 seconds, holding her ground on her own at the front for the remainder of the race. Her teammate Ingvild Flugstad Østberg led the chasers to take second place, followed by, what was at the time a new name, Sweden’s 19-year-old Frida Karlsson, earning a bronze medal in her inaugural World Championships.
Johaug’s performance at the Holmenkollen looked to be an attempt to repeat this style of victory. She was off the front at the 20 k mark, but had not taken the opportunity to switch her skis. Working together on fresh boards were Karlsson and teammate Ebba Andersson, who steadily closed the gap to Johaug. With less than 2 k to go, Karlsson could be seen from the same camera angle, gaining ground with every kick and glide.
Inside the last kilometer, Karlsson overtook Johaug on a long climb. Despite the Norwegian’s best efforts, she could not match the speed of the Swede’s skis on the downhill and Karlsson broke away to win by just under 2 seconds.
So what would it be today?
Johaug’s pace from the start seemed impossible to sustain for the full duration of the event. While other women looked steady and controlled, Johaug was simply charging, her rapid breathing matched by her tempo.
By 10 k, Johaug had a lead of over 53 seconds to the first chase group, led by her teammate Heidi Weng, Andersson of Sweden, and Katharina Hennig of Germany. At the halfway mark, this lead ballooned to over 1:32. Even if impeded by subpar skis, it looked to be an insurmountable margin. Spoiler alert: it was. This left a race for silver and gold in her wake.
A pack of five women seemed to be pulling ahead of the larger chase group that had been together from the start. At 15k it was: Andersson, Karlsson, Weng, Hennig, and Therese Stadlober of Austria.
After a 15 second gap, Krista Pärmäkoski skied alone in an effort to gap up, leaving behind a second chase group that included Sadie Maubet Bjornsen in 8th, in what she announced would be the final race of her professional career.
At 18k Johaug smoothly switched into new boards, while the first chase pack worked their way toward the stadium in the background. Johaug’s gap was approaching two minutes.
Inside the final 10k, a few women led by Pärmäkoski, had gapped up to the first chase group. After a crash took out the three women at the front — Andersson, Karlsson, and Weng — Stadlober snuck around the right side, increasing her tempo to kick and glide away from the women now 16 seconds behind her in pursuit.
Striding and poling in sync, Karlsson, Andersson, and Weng looked determined to regain contact with the Austrian. As they departed the stadium in the sun with 6k to go, the threesome had achieved this goal. They strided away up tracks that looked to be eroding in the sun, heading into the woods where the course looked much different. As more crashes had already happened behind them on sugary sweeping downhills, the task ahead looked to be as much about staying upright as skiing fast.
Talking to a trailside coach on a climb with 2k to go, Johaug seemed to be basking in the confidence of her victory. Attacking through the final kilometer of the course nonetheless, Johaug alternated between a spicy double pole and throwing her arms up in celebration as she made her way down the finishing lanes to stop the clock in 1:24:56.3.
Earning her 14th championship medal, ten of which are gold, Johaug has overtaken Norwegian ski legend Marit Bjørgen for the most World Championship medals. The first in her collection was a bronze in the 30k classic in Sapporo, Japan in 2007. Johaug struck out in 2009, but came into the 2011 World Championships on her home turf in Oslo ready to go, taking gold in the 30 k skate and relay, and bronze in the skiathlon.
Johaug is also the second woman to have won 30 k events in both freestyle and classic at the World Championship, following in the footsteps of Elena Välbe of Russia who retired after the Nagano Olympics in 1998. Johaug also joins Välbe and Bjørgen as the only women to have won successive 30 k events at a World Championships.
“It’s amazing, actually,” said of her string of four gold medal performances in Oberstdorf in a post-race interview with FIS. “I work so hard for it, training so much to reach my goals. To come here to Oberstdorf and fight for four gold medals, I have no words. I know so many girls train really hard to reach their goals, and I know that I have a lot of pressure on me when I come here. I was a favorite to win the distance, but you have to do it, and it takes a lot of focus to reach your goals.”
The FIS interviewer called it the “era of Therese Johaug”, to which the Norwegian gave an emotional response, her voice breaking tearfully with her final statement.
“I never have been in such good shape. I am so happy. I’m 33 years and I know I’m getting older and older and I know that this time ends soon, so I am just so happy.”
In the closing kilometers of the race for silver and bronze, Weng, Andersson, and Karlsson began to drop Stadlober. Finding a new gear as she surged up the last steep climb, Weng rounded the hairpin turn in the lead and dropped into a tuck.
With just a sugary right hand curve out of the downhill to navigate before the final straightaway, Weng was shooting her shot. However, Karlsson’s skis and double pole were superior as they headed down the lanes, gaining her centimeters on Weng with each strike.
In the end, the small gap Weng had created from her move was enough. By a margin of 0.6 seconds, Weng took silver (+2:34.2), leaving Karlsson with her second bronze medal in the event (+2:34.8).
Andersson held on for fourth (+2:36.3), followed by Stadlober in fifth (+2:59.4).
After the finish, Karlsson was seen rolling up the sleeve of her race suit and holding her forearm, which she proceeded to show the Swedish support staff. After icing and splinting the injury, she was reportedly taken away by medical staff and did not participate in the podium ceremony. In an interview with the Swedish news outlet Expressen, a team doctor explained that the injury occured in the crash with Andersson and Weng and that she is being taken to the hospital for x-rays. FasterSkier will share additional information as it becomes available.
Turning our focus to North America, Maubet Bjornsen skied her way to 15th. After falling off the pace with the second chase group as it broke apart, Maubet Bjornsen held her ground well inside the top-20 over the final two laps. Finishing in a tight finish with Johanna Matintalo of Finland and Emma Ribom of Sweden, who took 13th and 14th respectively, Maubet Bjornsen crossed the line 4:42.4 behind Johaug.
“I had many kilometers of celebrating and it was just the hardest 30 k I have ever done,” said Maubet Bjornsen after her race. “So you know, nothing like going out on that to remind you how hard this sport is.”
Providing insight into her day, Maubet Bjornsen reflected positively on the first half of her racing, adding that her equipment could not quite match her effort after the ski change.
“I felt totally incredible for the first three laps and then I switched onto some skis that were not quite good enough to stay with the pack I was skiing with. Then it was just like fighting to get to the finish. But I feel really stoked about my first 15 k and that is a good memory, just feeling like one of the strongest girls climbing that monster hill. That is a fun memory to go out with.”
Closing out her initial thoughts on her final race, Maubet Bjornsen added, “I definitely feel really grateful for my whole career and this last week was definitely really special and the relay was certainly the highlight of the week. It is good to finish on a really hard note too, pushing through 30 kilometers and yeah, I am thankful for my whole career.”
Also inside the top-30 were Hailey Swirbul in 26th (+6:55.6) and Sophia Laukli in 28th (+8:00.7). The final American starter, Katharine Ogden, took 37th (+11:30.7).
“I think it went pretty well for me,” said Swirbul after her race. “I am happy with my day. I had a pretty fast start and I got to ski with my Sadie for a brief moment there in her last race as a professional, so that was really special.”
“In the 30 k there are so many deaths, and so many revivals that you just have to keep going,” Swirbul continued. “And I went through a couple of those and was very relieved to see the finish line. I am proud out team today and some good fighting.”
For Laukli, today was a first — her debut in the 30 k event. She explained after the race that was not sure how to pace, and felt she had good energy throughout, never on the cusp of a bonk despite skiing alone with no one to draft behind for much of the distance.
“This is the type of race you want to ski with other people,” Laukli said regarding what she learned. “And also, you should switch skis — which I forgot to do. Definitely a learning experience and there’s a lot I can improve on, but I am overall happy with how it went.”
Canada’s Katherine Stewart-Jones led the way for our neighbors to the North (or East, if you’re Alaskan), finishing 23rd (+6:05.7). Stewart-Jones went out at a fast pace, sitting at the back of Maubet Bjornsen’s chase group in 17th at the 10 k mark, fading into 21st by 20k, holding her ground in this range for the remainder of the day.
Cendrine Browne was next for Canada, finishing 27th (+7:57.6). Outside the top-30, Dahria Beatty took 34th (+10:01.0).
Jessie Diggins and Rosie Brennan did not start today, reportedly conserving energy for the final World Cup stop in Engadin, Switzerland beginning March 13th. The weekend will include a 10 k classic and 30 k skate.
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646