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After a long hiatus from international racing, the top athletes found themselves on the start line once again, ready to contest the first event of the 2022 Winter Olympics. First up, a 15-kilometer skiathlon, featuring 64 starters completing four 3.75 k loops. The skiathlon, which combines both classic and skate in one race (7.5 k of each in this case), is an infrequent event on the World Cup circuit though appears on the schedule at all championships.
Four years ago, at the Olympics in PyeongChang, it was Charlotte Kalla of Sweden who bested the field to take gold, followed by Marit Bjørgen of Norway and Krista Pärmäkoski of Finland. Notably, this year’s winner, Therese Johaug was not present, but we will return to this point later on.
Watched by a few masked fans in the stands, the athletes completed final preparations before the start. Even without looking at the temperature, the cold was evident, from the blowing trees and bibs to the drifting snow across the tracks and the face-tape present on all the starters. The thermometer said -12.5°C or 9.5°F, though this reading likely didn’t factor in the windchill. With minutes to go, the athletes emerged from a set of underground stairs, bundled in parkas, to take their places on the start line.
At the starters command, the first cross-country ski race of the 2022 Olympics was underway, and almost immediately two skiers went down in a crash, though thankfully the damage did not impact the rest of the field. Coralie Bentz of France and Anne Kyllönen of Finland recovered quickly and rejoined the pack. With the first A-climb less than 1 k into the course, early leaders Rosie Brennan (USA) and Therese Johaug (NOR) pushed the pace, and the pack soon thinned.
On the descents, the camera showed most athletes opting to ski on the platform, rather than the tracks, due to the drifting snow that was filling them. Skirting another fall, this time from Johanna Matintalo of Finland, the front group entered the stadium for the first round in a pack of roughly fifteen. With just over eleven minutes on the race clock, there were ten athletes within five seconds of Johaug, a slight surprise given her tendency for early breakaways.
Heading out for the second lap, Johaug visibly upped the pace though still had difficulty shaking her followers. Through the 5.1 k mark, the spread was now ten athletes over the span of ten seconds, led by Kerttu Niskanen (FIN) and ending with her teammate Matintalo, who had recovered from her fall. Whittled away over the duration of that lap, when they reached the second A-climb of the course before descending towards the stadium, Johaug was leading a group of just six skiers.
Entering the stadium for the transition to skate skis, Johaug double-poled the final rise, managing to open a slight gap to Niskanen, Frida Karlsson (SWE) and Pärmäkoski (FIN). Executing a quick exchange she held the lead and was out with 23:04.7 elapsed on the clock. Niskanen followed +1.0 behind, Pärmäkoski +2.2 and Karlsson +4.3.
It is worth noting that after the exchanges, Jessie Diggins of the USA was in tenth, +57.5 seconds behind Johaug, having dropped significantly over the first two classic loops. Rosie Brennan was next in 14th (+1:11.9), with Hailey Swirbul in 23rd (+1:52.6) as the final American inside the Top-30. Julia Kern was +4:07.1 behind in 53rd, about to hit the gas on the skate laps.
Capitalizing on her one-second advantage, Johaug found herself off the front for the first time. Pärmäkoski, Karlsson and Niskanen shared leads in an attempt to chase her down but by 8.8 k the gap had stretched to +15.8, effectively securing Johaug her first ever individual Olympic gold medal. From that point, the margins only grew: +26 at 10 k, +44 at 12.6 k and +30.2 at the completion of 15 k.
Despite her utter dominance of World Cup races and World Championships the past few seasons, Johaug’s results sheet at the Olympics is not what you might expect.
Prior to the day’s skiathlon victory, she had only one other gold medal, coming from the team relay in the 2010 Games in Vancouver Canada. She was a runner-up in Sochi 2014 during the 30 k freestyle mass start when she placed second behind teammate, Marit Bjørgen, and she also earned bronze in the 10 k classic in Sochi. Johaug received an 18-month competition ban in 2017 for a positive doping test which prevented her from attending the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang.
In her post-race press conference, Johaug said she does not hold onto anger about her suspension, which left her even more motivated to prove herself this year.
“I’m finished with these years and I’m focusing on myself, and the future and things I can do something with,” Johaug said in a press conference. “It means maybe more for me today when I’m didn’t have this gold medal, and maybe if I had the gold medal before, this Olympics, maybe I would not been here.”
With the recent outbreak of COVID amongst the Norwegian team, Johaug’s path to Beijing has not been as smooth as she would have liked. She only arrived at the venue on Wednesday, leaving just a few days to adjust to the time change and climate before the first event. In spite of these challenges, she proved equal to the task, skiing away with the victory in a time of 44:13.7.
Behind Johaug, the race for silver and bronze was playing out in a dramatic way. Initially, Karlsson of Sweden seemed to have pulled away, when at 10 k she was 26 seconds behind Johaug, and 10 seconds ahead of Niskanen (FIN) and Teresa Stadlober of Austria. However, this break was short-lived, and at 11.3 k, Karlsson was less than a second ahead of Natalia Nepryaeva (ROC) who had worked with Stadlober to rejoin the chase pack. Pärmäkoski (FIN) began to drop off the pace and the group was down to four. At this point, Diggins (USA) could be spotted closing in on Pärmäkoski, who continued to fade.
Entering the final A-climb of the race, Stadlober (AUT) injected some pace, attempting to pull away but Karlsson of Sweden and Nepryaeva (ROC) hung on. Only Niskanen (FIN) dropped slightly.
Thus it was three skiers vying for two medal spots. But as they descended towards the stadium Niskanen closed in again, making the group four. Nepryaeva crested the final rise in front as across the stadium the camera showed Johaug crossing the line, arms raised and a frozen smile on her face.
Down the finishing straight Nepryaeva held onto her lead as Stadlober mounted a final challenge, ultimately running out of space as the two finished in silver and bronze position respectively. Niskanen (FIN) finished fourth (+36.1), Karlsson (SWE) in fifth (+42.5), and in an impressive comeback, Diggins crossed the line sixth (+50.5).
This silver is the first Olympic medal for Natalia Nepryaeva, who most recently became the first Russian women to win the Tour de Ski. Her only other Olympic appearances came in PyeongChang where her best finish was fourth in the classic sprint.
For Teresa Stadlober of Austria, this bronze medal could be viewed as redemption. Stadlober was in medal contention during the 30 k classic at PyeongChang when a last minute wrong turn took her out of the running. Furthermore, after a total of 18 individual starts at championship events (Olympics and World Championships), this is Stadlober’s first medal. She holds just three World Cup podiums, two during the 2018 edition of the Tour de Ski in Toblach where she placed third in the 10 k classic mass start and had the second fastest time of the day on the Alpe Cermis hill climb. The third podium was in a 15 k skiathlon in Oberstdorf Germany in 2020 where she also placed third.
Other noteworthy performances from the day includes Anastasia Rygalina (ROC), who has had just ten World Cup starts in her career and never finished in the top ten, finishing the race in 8th. Behind her, Delphine Claudel of France earned a new personal best for the Olympics placing 9th.
After being +55.5 seconds behind Pärmäkoski and the chase group at the exchange, Diggins ended up finishing a full eight seconds ahead of the Finn and was just 20 seconds behind bronze medalist, Stadlober.
“I definitely finished with nothing left so I feel really good about that,” said Diggins in the mixed zone after the race. “I was so proud of never giving up. I feel really good about the pacing and where my fitness is. I definitely want to figure out some things with my power striding, but overall I think this was a really encouraging start to the Games and honestly it feels really good just to have gotten here and to be able to race.”
When asked about the cold and windy conditions Diggins replied, “My hands got pretty cold because I needed thinner gloves for the pit-box changing. My muscles stayed warm though. [The wind] is really something, and that’s what makes it so cold, so I think it’s important to really push that and stay warm.”
Regarding the course, Diggins said, “They’re really good courses. I really like them. I think they’re really fair and great championship courses. They’re as hard as they look, you’ve really got to work for it.”
In Diggins final 5k, she advanced from eighth place and over 1:13 back to finish sixth place and roughly 50 seconds back. This is a difference of 23 seconds gained on the leader over 5k, with ten seconds gained in the final 2.4k.
“I had amazing skate skis and I think I had paced just well enough to be able to do that,” Diggins said of this progress. “I crossed the finish line with nothing left. It’s really cool to get a race on these courses in and I think I’m figuring [them] out.”
Brennan was the next finisher for Team USA, in fourteenth position (+2:51.7). Brennan had initially fallen behind Germany’s Katharina Hennig in the skate leg to slide into 15th, but she regained her position with 3 k to go, further accelerating to give herself a 7 second cushion at the finish.
“Definitely a little bit of everything out there today,” Brennan told U.S. Ski & Snowboard communications manager Tom Horrocks after the race. “Some good, some ugly, some in between.”
While Brennan’s result might not be evidence that she is a medal threat in the event, and she is surely left wanting more, she spoke like a true veteran, showing maturity and perspective in her response to how she will look back on the performance.
“I think I have to take the like big picture perspective. Four years ago, I think I was close to dead last fighting some [mononucleosis], and that was my first and last Olympic race. So I really had kind of a — I don’t know what you’d call it — a demon in the back of my mind that I needed to get rid of. So to be in a better place today, even if it wasn’t my best, was a step in the right direction. And that’s something that I’m proud of.”
While official start lists are not yet available, as Brennan is one of USA’s top skiers, she will likely start in multiple upcoming events.
On her mindset and how she’s feeling heading into these stages, Brennan said, “It’s been a while since I’ve done racing at an international level. (Brennan left Europe after the Davos World Cup races in mid-December, spending the last six weeks near her home in Park City, UT.) I’m really hoping that the effort today was what I needed to just get back into things and find a better place ,because I certainly have had some workouts that have indicated that I’m in good shape. So I do want more and I think I can get more. I’m really looking forward to the other races.”
Behind Brennan, Hailey Swirbul finished in 40th (+5:28.8).
“It’s a lot of V1 skate, it’s hard,” Swirbul said in the mixed zone in reference to the course, “It makes for fair racing but you have to be totally on your game. It didn’t feel like [you get a break] today, it was a tough day for sure.”
When asked about taking part in the Olympics and the momentum of the team, Swirbul said, “It’s a hugely exciting time to be part of this team. We’ve shown over the last four years what we’re capable of. We will give everything we have out there. It feels like a relief that we made it here and that our team has been healthy and we prepared really well so far. A race is a race, no matter if it’s an Olympic or local race. It’s important to keep your head in the game, and be ready to fight no matter what.”
Julia Kern rounded out the US finishers in 53rd position (+7:51.8). It was “windy and tough,” said Kern definitively. “That was a really tough race, probably the windiest race I’ve ever done. I had a ton of base layers on so I stayed warm, but the wind cools you right down on the downhill.”
Regarding her participation in the Games, Kern said, “It’s a dream come true, I’m really excited to see what we can do as a team for the rest of the Games. This is just the beginning.”
The Canadian women made a strong showing in the top thirty, led by Cendrine Browne in 20th (+3:44.4). Not far behind her was Kathrine Stewart-Jones, matching her bib number and finishing in 23rd (+4:03.6). In a dramatic finish – essentially a forward fall across the line – Dahria Beatty finished 28th (+4:38.8), putting three Canadians in the top thirty. Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt was the fourth Canadian and finished 44th (+5:58).
Racing for Australia, APU’s Jessica Yeaton finished just outside the Top-30 in 31st (+4:40.3).
The men will race a 30 k skiathlon tomorrow, and the next women’s event will be the freestyle sprint on February 8th. You can find a detailed schedule for the Olympic cross-country events, including how to watch, here.
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.