NewsOlympicsRacingJohaug Wins Second Gold in a Close Race; Diggins Leads Americans in 8th

Ella HallFebruary 10, 2022
Podium finishers, Kerttu Niskanen (FIN), Therese Johaug (NOR), Krista Pärmäkoski (FIN), (l-r) (photo: NordicFocus)

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Thursday morning saw the third women’s cross-country race in the Zhangjiakou stadium. On the docket, a 10-kilometer individual start classic with two laps of a challenging 5 k course. After a reprieve from the wind during the sprint event Tuesday evening, it was blowing once again as the athletes headed to the start.

Zhangjiakou 5 k course. (screenshot from FIS homologation certificate)

Unlike the skiathlon which saw 62 finishers, the start list for the 10 k individual classic featured 98 racers. Most of the later starters represented nations we don’t normally see at World Cup events, such as Greece, Brazil, and Hungry. Many of these skiers fall into the ‘B-standard’ Olympic qualification category; provided they can earn less than 300 FIS points in a competition prior to the games, but have greater than the 100 point threshold of the A-standard, these athletes can race in the 10 k and relay events. 

To set the stage for Thursday’s race, we can begin with a brief dive into recent Olympic, World Championship, and World Cup results at this distance. Given that this year’s edition of the individual-start 10 k event was contested in classic technique, the 10 k individual start in PyeongChang was a freestyle race (disciplines alter every two years at championship events). As such, it is harder to draw direct predictions from the podium four years ago to possible success in today’s event. Nevertheless, to remind ourselves, it was Ragnhild Haga of Norway who walked away with the gold in 2018. Charlotte Kalla of Sweden finished second and she was followed by Marit Bjørgen of Norway in third position. Delving deeper into the Olympic records, a look at the results from the 10 k individual classic in Sochi, shows that Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland took gold, with Kalla again the runner-up, and Therese Johaug rounding out the podium with bronze. 

Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla racing to silver in the 10 k classic individual start at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (Photo: FS archives)

The most recent championship-level 10 k individual-start classic race was in Seefeld, Austria when the World Championships were held there in 2019. There, the victory went to Therese Johaug who finished 12.2 seconds ahead of Frida Karlsson of Sweden. Johaug’s teammate, Ingvild Flugstad Østberg was third, but has since battled health concerns and been largely absent from international racing

This season, the two 10 k individual start classic events have been won by Karlsson (in Ruka, FIN +13.7 ahead of Johaug) and Kerttu Niskanen of Finland in Lenzerheide, SUI (during the Tour de Ski in which Johaug did not compete). 

Perhaps one of the more open events in terms of podium predictions, the race turned out to be an exciting one with the margins between medal positions coming down to hundredths of seconds. In the end, it was Johaug of Norway who walked away with her second gold medal from these Games, eking out a win ahead of Niskanen (FIN) by just 0.4 seconds. 

Therese Johaug (NOR) crosses the finish line and collapses (Photo: NordicFocus)

Rewinding to the start, Russian Olympic Committee athletes Natalia Nepryaeva and Tatiana Sorina clocked the fastest times to begin. Looking at the course profile, the first split at 1.3 k comes at the end of a good deal of climbing. Close behind the ROC athletes were two Finn’s, Niskanen and Krista Pärmäkoski, with Johaug rounding out the top five, a surprising +12.8 seconds behind Nepryaeva. 

Move forward to 3.6 k and the top three were within 0.5 seconds of each other, Niskanen and Johaug tied with a split of 10:47.7, Nepryaeva passing through at 0.5 seconds off their mark. With one lap complete, Nepryaeva had started to fade, perhaps paying the price for her early pace. At 5 k it was Johaug with the advantage over Niskanen, but only by +0.6 seconds, and Nepryaeva was now +6.2 behind. 

Therese Johaug (NOR) striding her way to a win in the 10 k classic (Photo: NordicFocus)

Through 6.3 k it seemed like Niskanen had made a break, pulling ahead of Johaug by 11 seconds, on a section of course that is mostly climbing, generally a strong point for Johaug. Nepryaeva was still in third +14.7 behind Niskanen and Pärmäkoski (FIN) was holding onto her fourth place position, +17.7 back. In the next 0.5 k, something appears to have happened to the ROC athlete, as Nepryaeva lost 12.1 seconds to Niskanen (+26.8) and was overtaken in by Pärmäkoski who moved into third +18 seconds behind her teammate. 

The final course split was at the 8.6 k mark and with Johaug having the earlier bib, we saw her through first. She had gained the minute start deficit she had to Jessie Diggins and moved past the American, employing her signature high tempo up the final A-climb. When Niskanen came through moments later, her body language was visibly more labored than Johaug’s. In spite of this, Niskanen still held the lead, +1.3 seconds ahead of the Norwegian. Pärmäkoski remained in third, +23.6 behind, followed by Nepryaeva who was +31.8 behind. 

Natalia Nepryaeva (ROC) slides her foot across the line, 0.1 seconds behind Krista Pärmäkoski of Finland (Photo: NordicFocus)

Entering the stadium, Johaug was skiing outside the windblown tracks. Knowing the margins were tight, she pushed hard, crossing the finish line in a time of 28:06.3. Facing a headwind into the finish, Niskanen chose to keep her skis inside the tracks, battling the final meters as the stopwatch ticked by. Sliding her foot across the line, the timestamp turned to red. She crossed +0.4 seconds behind Johaug. 

“It was the two most nervous minutes in my life, waiting for [Niskanen]”, said Johaug in the press conference after the race. 

“It was a really tough race out there today and, as Kerttu said, it was really close race,” Johaug continued. “So I feel that it’s also Kerttu’s gold medal because 0.4 second is nothing. I think we both are the the winners today in my head.”

Kerttu Niskanen (FIN) digs deep for precious time in the 10 k classic (Photo: NordicFocus)
Teammates Krista Pärmäkoski (FIN) and Kerttu Niskanen (FIN) celebrate their podium finishes. (Photo: NordicFocus)

After earning her first individual gold medal just days ago in the skiathlon, Johaug continues to cement her place in history as she gains another. Her performance gives the Norwegians something to hold onto as the rest of the team struggled to perform at the level fans are accustomed to.

With twins Tiril Udnes and Lotta Udnes Weng finishing 21st and 25th respectively and Mathilde Myhrvold back in 44th position, the remaining women racing on behalf of  Norway did not have their strongest showing. 

So far, Johaug is the only female Norwegian athlete to earn a medal of any color, while Johannes Høsflot Klæbo earned the only medal on the men’s side, a gold in the 1.5 k freestyle sprint on Tuesday. Three Norwegian athletes, including medal favorites Heidi Weng and Simen Hegstad Krüger, remain detained due to a positive COVID test just prior to travel. Weng recently announced on social media that she will not be making it to China and it is unclear whether Krüger will be cleared in time to compete in events next week.

Lotta Udnes Weng (NOR) finished 25th in the 10 k classic (Photo: NordicFocus)

For Kerttu Niskanen, this silver marks her first individual championship medal. She holds two silver medals from team events, both coming from Sochi in 2014. Niskanen only has three World Cup victories to her name and they all were in 10 k classic events, a specialty of hers. 

“My plan before this race was to push hard every time and try to ski within my limits,” Niskanen explained in the press conference. “In the second laps on the long uphill from stadium, on the big uphill, [that] was the best part part for me in these tracks… I tried to push hard also end of the race but the I can say that Therese was much better than me. I did my best and it was really near but, yeah.”

Kerttu Niskanen (FIN) celebrating her first individual Olympic medal (photo: NordicFocus)

The bronze medal was also decided by a razor-thin margin. Pärmäkoski started bib number 38 and was hunted by Nepryaeva in bib 60 who had the advantage of more split information. However, when Nepryaeva crossed the finish line, she was outside by just 0.1 seconds, having finished in a time of 28:37.9 whereas Pärmäkoski came across in 28:37.8. Pärmäkoski has three individual Olympic medals, from a range of events in PyeongChang. She earned bronze in both the skiathlon and 10 k individual freestyle in 2018, as well as silver in the 30 k classic mass start. 

Krista Pärmäkoski (FIN) stretching for the lunge that gave her third place (Photo: NordicFocus)

For the American contingent, there was some back and forth playing out between Jessie Diggins and Rosie Brennan throughout the race. Just 48 hours after winning the first individual medal for women’s cross-country skiing, Diggins was back on the start line wearing bib 34, starting one minute ahead of eventual winner, Johaug in bib 36. Brennan started in bib 44.

Jessie Diggins (USA) crests a climb in the 10 k individual start classic (Photo: NordicFocus)

At the 1.3 k mark, the two were 13th and 14th, with Brennan +19.9 behind and Diggins +20.4. At 3.6 k Brennan had moved into 8th, +21.3 behind with Diggins in 10th, +25.1 back. With the climbing complete for the first lap, the 5 k split showed Diggins in 9th, +30.1 behind with Brennan now behind her in 11th, +31.8. Begin the climbing for the second lap and Brennan was again the first American, in 9th place and +45.7 behind while Diggins was in 14th, +52.7.

Rosie Brennan (USA) hits a dynamic stride in the 10 k classic (photo: NordicFocus)

At 8.6 k the two were neck and neck, Diggins in 10th, +1:05.6 and Brennan in 11th, +1:11.6. Over the final 1.4 k Diggins grew her advantage over her teammate to finish in 8th position, +1:08.8 behind winner, Therese Johaug (NOR). Brennan finished her day in 13th place, +1:22.3 behind Johaug. 

Jessie Diggins (USA) left it all out on the course in the 10 k classic, per usual. (Photo: NordicFocus)

As she provided comments on today’s performance, Diggins first spoke to savoring the moment of yesterday’s medal ceremony. “It was so special to call my family and call my fiancé, and come back to the apartment and show our staff like our coaches the medal and just enjoy that moment.”

After a “rollercoaster” of eating, drinking, and other recovery-focused actions – Diggins said the Tour de Ski was helpful for knowing how to handle the tight turnaround – she turned her full attention to today’s classic race.

“I was really, really happy today,” Diggins said in the mixed zone. “I was so focused on my process. This is undoubtably my weakest event, but I was just so focused on enjoying it – like, ‘Great! No pressure. This is just my day to go out there and enjoy racing at the Olympics.’ Especially seeing Novie do her first Olympic race – I got to put the glitter on her I give her a hug – it was honestly pretty emotional. But in a good way.”

Though she has steadily closed the gap between her results in skate and classic performances, Diggins has been primarily seen success in freestyle competitions. On today’s race, she maintained that her focus was not on the result, but on giving her all despite classic being her weaker technique.

“It was so cool to work on that process and dial in the kick,” Diggins said. “I was so, so grateful for awesome skis. When I go really hard, I can’t feel my body from the waist down. And when you can’t feel your legs and you’re still kicking up the hill –  you have to have great kick… And man, they delivered. I was just so proud of them.Especially in challenging conditions where it’s windblown in the tracks, or you’re trying to keep skis fast and grippy. That’s hard… I think they did a great job.”

Speaking to whether she has made progress in her classic skiing, Diggins continued, “I would like to think so. I’ve been working very very hard on it for a lot of years. I’ve been just so focused on that process on the technique and every single stride I was just thinking so hard about my technique. It really kept me right in the moment and thinking about what I could do so yeah, I’m gonna keep working on it to keep improving it.”

Jessie Diggins skis to 8th in the 10 k classic. (Photo: NordicFocus)

On a course Brennan described as “brutal” she explained that seconds could easily be gained or lost along any stretch, up or downhill. She also acknowledged the challenge of facing the wind in an interval start race where there may be less opportunity to use another skier to block the wind than there is in a mass start. Overall, Brennan executed her goals on the day, despite looking to be higher on the results sheet.

“I was really focused on having powerful classic skiing and I was pretty happy with how I skied,” Brennan said in the mixed zone. “I wish I had a little more, but I did what I could with what I had today.”

Brennan finished one place (just 0.6 seconds) behind Sweden’s Frida Karlsson, who has two wins in the 10 k classic on the World Cup, including a win over Johaug earlier this season. This strong result is on the heels of her Olympic career best finish in the individual skate sprint, which was held under the lights Tuesday evening.

“The turnaround was definitely hard,” Brennan said. “It’s really hard with these late night races to  get good sleep afterwards. So I think that was challenging. I did a lot of training this summer to try to like mimic that load. So I’m hoping that I can manage it, but we will take it day by day and see what we can do.”

Rosie Brennan comes to the line in 13th in the 10 k individual start classic. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Making her Olympic debut, Novie McCabe was the first starter for the United States, wearing bib number 5. At the age of 20, McCabe is the youngest member of a young team in Beijing. After earning her first World Cup points in Davos earlier this year, McCabe also notched a top-ten finish during the Alpe Cermis hill climb during the Tour de Ski. In an impressive performance, McCabe skied her way to 24th in a time of 30:34.9.

When she started, the British Eurosport announcers remarked, “I think McCabe is going to be a superstar like Diggins in a few years.”

At 5 k, McCabe was in 38th position, +1:27.9 behind Johaug. At 6.3 k she had moved into 32nd, at 6.8 k she was in 29th and by 8.6 k she had jumped to 24th, which she held through the finish. 

The long last hill was, for sure, so hard,” McCabe said after the race. “I tried to kind of just zone out and get through it. And I knew that it would be tough, especially on the last time up. But it was nice also to have so many people like around me out there and kind of have people to watch ahead of me. That helps a lot.”

Novie Mccabe (USA) skiing strong in her first Olympic race (Photo: NordicFocus)

Hailey Swirbul was the fourth American competitor and wore bib 27. Swirbul raced in the skiathlon earlier this week and finished in 40th. In today’s 10 k classic, she bested that performance and landed herself in 32nd, +2:59.0 behind Johaug. Swirbul was just five seconds outside of the Top-30.

“It was better than my last race,” Swirbul said simply in response to how she felt about her day. “I’m excited. I had a little bit of a reset – had a few days to recover from that first effort and have really focused on kind of resetting my goals, trying to push as hard as I could through that whole race and not give up no matter what. And I was able to do that today.”

With the women’s relay looming, team selection is a buzzing topic amongst ski fans. Swirbul skied a classic leg in the December, 2021 relay in Lillehammer, NOR, and was a member of the 2021 World Championship relay team in Oberstdorf, GER. The American team finished just off the podium in fourth in both races.

Swirbul said that relay team selection was not on her mind during her race today, though she does feel the pressure to perform that is perhaps inescapable at an Olympic level competition.

“That definitely does factor in for all of us here,” she said. “But I think at the end of the day, everyone on our team is confident that we’re going to try to put in the team with the best shot of a relay medal. So there are no hard feelings. There’s nothing personal about that team selection. We all trust that we’re just trying to do the best for our nation and give us a good shot.”

Hailey Swirbul (USA) working her way to a 32nd place finish in the 10 k classic (Photo: NordicFocus)

For the Canadians, Dahria Beatty continued her momentum, building off of strong performances in both the skiathlon and sprint to finish 18th, +1:53.9. This is a personal best for Beatty, following a week of personal bests. She finished 25th in the skiathlon and 25th in the sprint; her best Olympic performance before that was a 37th place in 2018 during the 10 k freestyle at PyeongChang. 

Dahria Beatty (CAN) skiing to a personal best result of 18th (Photo: NordicFocus)

Behind Beatty, Kathrine Stewart-Jones finished 36th for team Canada, +3:02.3 behind. Cendrine Brown was 48th (+3:41.6), and Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt was 61st (+4:54.8). 

Representing Australia, Jessica Yeaton finished 51st (+3:48.3). 

The women now have a day to recover before the 4 x 5 k relay, which will take place on Saturday. 

Results

Rachel Bachman Perkins contributed.

Ella Hall

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.

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