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Tension built, tension released, as the build-up to the women’s 4 x 5-kilometer relay at the World Championships began under a partly cloudy sky, light breeze, and what we’ve come to expect, warm temperatures at 54 degrees Fahrenheit. Modified race suits aside, the scramble leg ensued with a narrative none predicted.
With 15 teams beginning, and a handful realistically in the medal hunt, the scramble leg, for all practical purposes, did scramble the narrative.
Sweden won a nailbiter 4 x 5k relay at the 2019 World Championships. And with a team loaded with Jonna Sunding, Charlotte Kalla, Ebba Andersson, and Frida Karlsson, they at least, in the Monday-morning-quarterback discourse, seemed a medal contender if not a gold medal lock. Sundling, however, with slick kick, fell off the pace set by Tiril Udnes of Norway and Kirpichenko of Russia. She came through the 5 k mark to tag Kalla 12.5 seconds back of the Czech Republic in first, then Norway, RSF, and Canada’s mega-scramble performance by Katherine Stewart-Jones.
Focusing on Sweden here seems on point as they eliminated themselves from contention early on. Kalla, the storied Olympic and World’s champion, fell off the pace something hard on the second leg and landed with a thud. Be it poor ski speed or off-the-mark fitness on the day, the sand through the hourglass flowed freely in terms of Sweden’s time back. Kalla handed Andersson, bronze medalist on Tuesday’s 10 k skate, a whopping 1:39 deficit.
Sweden out. Andersson and then Karlsson took the team in for a sixth-place finish, 2:00.0 off the winning time of Norway’s 53:43.2 mark. Swedish news outlet Exprssen quoted the Swedish wax tech chief as claiming they had missed the wax for the classic portion of the race.
In a relay where first place was a foregone conclusion mid-way into the third leg, we might as well jump to the win. Therese Johaug was tagged with a 2.6 second lead over Russia’s Tatiana Sorina. For their part, Yulia Stupak kept Russia in the hunt as did a coy leg by Heidi Weng, as the Norwegian pulled in front of Russia near the conclusion of her leg with a burst of fast-paced climbing.
Around the 12 k mark, Johaug pulled away with her iconic turnover. The race for gold over barring a catastrophic fall. Johaug tagged U23 skier Helene Marie Fossesholm with a 19.8-second gap to Natalia Nepryaeva for Russia. Nepryaeva held on for silver, stopping the clock 26.6 back.
This left the bronze medal up for grabs until the final meters.
Rewinding to the second leg, Swirbul for the U.S. kept it close until roughly 3 k, when she faded from the leaders. She tagged Maubet Bjornsen off, 14.5-second back in ninth place. Maubet Bjornsen kept it calm and held those in front within sight. Skiing with poise and patience, Maubet Bjornsen was 11 second out of third at 7.5 k. Not a kilometer later she had latched onto the Czech Republic’s Petra Novakova in third.
At the 10 k tag, when the skate legs began, Maubet Bjornsen, Germany, and Switzerland were grouped about 27 seconds behind Norway, while Finland came through in sixth, five-seconds after the American.
Brennan charged. She led Germany’s Pia Fink through the 12.5 k checkpoint in third. Finland’s timeless Riitta-Liisa Roponen was fifth, nine seconds behind the American-German pairing. Tagging off for the final leg, Germany, Finland, and the U.S. tagged off third, fourth, and fifth, respectively, with no significant time gaps between them.
Victoria Carl for Germany, Krista Pärmäkoski for Finland, and Jessie Diggins for the U.S. began a 5 k hunt for bronze. Like Brennan before her, Diggins took over the pacing, with Pärmäkoski and Carl close behind. Not until late in the leg did Carl fall off Diggins’ pace.
For readers of FasterSkier, Diggins is well known. Yet if Pärmäkoski was off your radar, we’re here to fill you in. At the 2018 Olympics, she won two individual bronze medals; one in the skiathlon, the other in the 10 k skate. She won silver in Korea too in the 30 k mass start. She has won five World Cups, all, however, in classic technique. Since 2011 she has 27 World Cup podiums.
By her standards, the thirty-year-old Pärmäkoski has had an off-year. She has no individual podiums, yet she did finish fifth overall in the Tour de Ski. She’s been consistent, by all measures, but missing her podium gears. She finished 13th overall in this week’s championship 10 k skate when Diggins just missed a medal when she placed fourth. Diggins bested the Finn’s time in that race by 52 seconds.
Again, on paper, Diggins takes this leg and the Americans in for their first championship 4 x 5 k relay hardware.
This is why they race. To see how it all unfolds. With Carl shaken off, it was Diggins and Pärmäkoski bronze medal hunting. Diggins’ tactic was full-steam ahead, leading Pärmäkoski until the closing few hundred meters. Pärmäkoski, sat tight, only showing her presence a few times on the American’s periphery.
Up the final leg-quivering climb a final time, Diggins came over a second ahead of Pärmäkoski and at 51:37 into the race Diggins briefly glanced back. Pärmäkoski was still there.
On the plateau above the climb, you could hear U.S. Ski team Head Coach screaming encouragement. Diggins continued to lead, both skiers noticeably fatigued from the effort ascending to the course high point.
Working and tucking down the sinuous and technical downhill, the two skiers mirrored one another. In a furious pace heading into the final short climb before the stadium, Pärmäkoski revealed herself directly to the side of Diggins. Pärmäkoski carried her speed and passed Diggins and led up the final buckling climb. Pärmäkoski descended first and entered the final straight with a four-meter gap. Pärmäkoski V2ed, Diggins pushed with a few free skate pulses and tried to eke out more speed as she too V2ed to the line.
Met by her Finnish squad, Pärmäkoski closed out for bronze (+46.2) with the U.S. in fourth (+47.0).
The racing, if anything, was great. Down to the wire, it went, just falling on the favorable side for Finland in the medal count. If fans want solid racing regardless of the outcome, they got it. With the heavy task of shouldering U.S. hopes in the relay, Swirbul kept them in it, Maubet Bjornsen, Brennan, and Diggins sparked dreams of biting down on the elusive medal.
It was Swirbul’s first opportunity to be a part of a championship relay team at the senior level. “I was really proud I’m so proud to be part of it I don’t, it’s a weird feeling because we’re expected to feel sad with getting fourth place but I feel really proud of this team,” she told the U.S. Ski Team after the race.
For Maubet Bjornsen, in what is likely her final season of World Cup racing, she spoke of an unrivaled legacy in U.S. women’s 4 x 5 k relay’s that has come ever so close to the championship podium.
“For sure that the relays are the highlights of why I am still ski racing and I think it’s so cool to see everybody just give every bit that they can,” Maubet Bjornsen said to the USST. “Of course we’re shooting for medal and for about six championships in a row we know that it’s possible, if we get all the ducks lined up. “But you know, part of the game is getting those ducks lined up. And that’s how you keep coming back and fighting. For sure we are fit enough and if we get all those ducks running, man we’re coming for the world.”
Diggins remains the face and spirit of a squad continually knocking on the podium door after four legs of relaying racing. In her post race comments, she explained race strategy is hardwired.
“I played the only part I had and I knew I had to ski like twice as hard as the girls that were with us,” said Diggins to the USST. “I did my absolute damnedest to drop them in the only place that I thought we could. I’m really proud of that…, Yeah it’s heartbreaking to come that close to a medal and know that fitness wise, we are so there. And I think that’s what’s really encouraging about this because that’s the only part that we can really control is coming into World Championships, knowing that our fitness is there, our minds are there, our tactics are there, and most importantly that we’re gritty enough.
“And we definitely are. So I think, for me, when you look at things we can control is how we skied that race. I’m so proud of it. That was an absolute championship performance from every single member of this team and not just from the people who were racing but people who weren’t racing. It’s heartbreaking to come that close and know that we’re there but also that’s, that’s part of the sport.”
The U.S women have placed fourth in World Championship relays in 2013, 2015, 2017, and 2021. If the U.S.’s white whale remains the relay medal, it’s a big ocean out there. Tactics and fitness profiles will be analyzed. But, roughly 12 months from now when the Beijing Olympics go down, the relay socks will be pulled up and 4 x 5 k relay medal dreams will begin anew. Today, Finland gets the well-deserved podium spot.
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.