The beautiful chess match on snow came down to the wire in Thursday’s 4 x 5-kilometer relay at the Seefeld, Austria World Championships. The chaser was Norway’s Therese Johaug, hustling to close an 18.8-second gap to Sweden’s Stina Nilsson. Known as a sprinter who comes to distance events with aerobic chops, Nilsson, who won bronze in the 2018 Olympic 30 k classic mass start, couldn’t be rattled as Johaug lurked ever closer as the 5 k leg ticked down to the final straight.
For the closing kilometer, it was Johaug, the consummate endurance animal, against Nilsson, the consummate sprint closer, as they played check mate skiing for the win.
Let’s take a step back to when the sharp end of the race began to form in earnest. Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg and Sweden’s Frida Karlsson sent pacing-tremors through the field during leg two. Østberg ultimately came through to tag Norway’s third leg skier Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen with a 1.4 second lead on Sweden’s third skier Charlotte Kalla. Russia and Germany trailed by more than ten seconds.
With the freestyle legs in play and 10 k of skiing to go, Sweden was able to lean on a reliable closer in Kalla. She skied big and bold, sitting on the tails of Jacobsen for much of her race. In this 4 x 5 k hunt, Sweden tried to bag the big-game of Norway with a little less than 1.5 k to go in Kalla’s leg – at the 39:20 minute mark Kalla sent it.
Up the course’s most notable climb, Kalla’s formidable V1 put 15 then 20 meters between herself and Jacobsen. In the last four World Championship 4 x 5 k relays, Sweden has played runner-up. As if fueled by that burden, Kalla handed Nilsson the gift of those previously mentioned and oh so precious 18.8 seconds as Sweden’s anchor leg sped away to find her own defining 5 k moment.
Norway came into the race with an untested line-up. In the early season World Cup 4 x 5 k relay in Beitostølen, Norway Johaug skied Norway’s second classic leg. Back then she did not irreparably smash the race apart. She added enough spicy tempo to give Norway a lead of 9.8 seconds as she tagged off. And Ingvild Flugstad Østberg skied the anchor when Norway won by 37.3 seconds.
We do not often consider Norway as the chasers in a women’s relay. So often they are off the front. On Thursday, as Johaug’s double-time turnover inched her incrementally closer to Nilsson, the race was wrought with tension. Nilsson skied in control, with a slower cadence than Johaug but generating a near equal amount of power with each cycle.
There was no doubt Johaug was at or near her limit. Nilsson too was pushing, but she appeared willing to eventually be caught by Johaug as the racecourse real estate dwindled.
The Johaug-Nilsson link-up came at 52:40 minutes, near the apex of the last lap’s decisive climb. A meter separated a wind breaking Johaug from a drafting Nilsson as they descended. Nilsson skis gave her the lead as they glided and free skated into the final bump before the finish. Johaug pushed again. She could not surge as a red-suited Norway paced side by side with a white-suited Sweden.
Nilsson took the lead over the top. Now it was Johaug in the draft as they schussed into the straight. But with Nilsson’s big lever V2 engaged, Johaug’s sprint couldn’t deliver. She drifted off the back as Nilsson played her winning hand to win for Sweden in 55:21.0 minutes.
For Ebba Andersson, Frida Karlsson, Charlotte Kalla, Stina Nilsson and all of Sweden the wait for a World Championship 4 x 5 k relay was over.
Norway’s Heidi Weng, Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, and Therese Johaug placed second (+3.1).
Russia came on strong in their fourth leg to take third (+2:03.8) over a once close Germany in fourth (+2:46.3).
“It is a dream coming true because we have been working hard all summer and fall and it has been a great effort from the whole team,” Kalla told FIS after the race.
“The conditions were tough out there,” Nilsson said. “It was a real struggle to push hard. And I was so hunted by Theresa [Johaug] so that was a bit stressing but I am so happy the girls gave me a big advantage because I needed it today to be first on the finish line.”
A New Look for the U.S.
The U.S. finished in fifth with a line-up of Julia Kern, Sadie Bjornsen, Rosie Brennan, and Jessie Diggins. Relay socks and glitter adorned the foursome as they navigated a warmed-up slushy course in Seefeld.
For U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover, along with his longtime coaching partners Matt Whitcomb and Jason Cork, determining the U.S. relay roster is no plug and play task. As witnessed in the Sweden vs. Norway race, parsing out the strengths and weaknesses of every athlete comes with a cost-benefit analysis worthy of hiring a PhD. in probability theory.
“It was a difficult task in terms of figuring out how to put together this relay team a couple of days ago after we had seen the women’s 10 k,” Grover said in a phone call. At that point, we knew we wanted to have Sadie and Rosie Brennan and Jessie going to the race. I had a really robust discussion around Julia and Caitlin and even potentially Rosie Frankowski in a skate leg. She had a great skate portion of her skiathlon the other day but also had a short illness after that. In trying to figure out the right way to put together the team, Julia has been feeling so good this week and skiing so well that we tried to do something a little bit different.”
In doing something different, Grover stated that the landscape within which the U.S. operates has changed. With Norway a known quantity and still a force, other nations like Sweden and Russia have built consistently strong 4 x 5 k relay teams. Concurrent with the rise of other nations is the continual development and support for U.S. athletes to determine a podium combination.
“We have had moments where all the women have skied great classic legs but we just need a little bit more flexibility, we need another woman or two in there that can be top ten or top fifteen on the World Cup on a given day to just fill out that roster,” Grover explained. “With relays, I think ideally you need, we have talked about it before, you need six athletes so that when you come to a championship you can pick the four that are in the best shape and you can use their technical strengths in the right places. I think at the same time, the other thing we have really seen is some of these other nations have raised their game in the meantime. … You have Sweden that is having an outstanding year with their women’s program. Across distance and sprint everyone has really taken a step forward within the Swedish team. They just don’t have weak legs anymore. There used to be a time when once in a while maybe we could really threaten Sweden but they are so strong across the board. And Russia too.”
For Kern, who has raced numerous relays at the Junior National and World Juniors level, this was her biggest relay scene yet.
“I was excited about going into today relays, they are my favorite day,” Kern said in a call. “I love 5 ks and I love mass starts. I have scrambled a lot in relays in the past and at JNs and World Juniors, I was really psyched to be in that position because usually, it is a good place for me to start and I have had some of my best races in relays as well. So I was really psyched to be on this team with these older girls and I was feeling good.”
At 3.5 k Kern maintained pace with the 17 team field. She passed through the time check 3.2 seconds behind. At that point, Kern said she began to feel the combo of heat, wet tracks, and a championship level pace.
“I felt like I was doing a lot of work there from 2.5 to 3.5 k and everything was feeling awesome and then I just kind of blew up a little bit,” said Kern. “I never experienced something like that before or that extreme but I really sent it and gave it my all. I just went for it because that is what you have to do in relays.”
The twenty-one-year-old Kern noted she had been balancing the teeter-totter of effort between full-send mode and just under the red line.
“The pace was fast, but I felt in control and I don’t know if it was the heat or what happened,” Kern added. “But it was a reminder that in relays it is hard because you have to ride that balance between sending it and risking it and trying to go with the leaders and also race your own race. In a mass start event that is really hard. I think my takeaways were to remember to ski your own race but also I think you don’t want to walk away at the end of the day wishing you could have gone harder. All you ask is that you went for it.”
Kern tagged to Bjornsen for the second classic leg in 11th (+44.2).
Bjornsen strode off with a gap of 20 seconds on 12th place Kazakhstan and seven seconds behind 10th place Czech Republic. With no team to ski behind, Bjornsen forged ahead in slow snow and towards a divided field.
“Out of the start I tried to get that first group and then I as soon as got to the hills I started attacking,” said Bjornsen in a call. “But it was remarkably hard to close gaps out there when there are groups working together. When you are working alone there is no rest. It is 5 k of full work.”
In the second half of her leg, Bjornsen’s pulse of effort paid dividends. She bridged up to and passed the Czechs, Japan, Canada, and France to leapfrog into sixth place.
“When I finally caught that group in front of me I tried to not to sit behind them in the draft which felt very comfortable,” Bjornsen said. “I reminded myself that every second counts. I have got to keep powering past.”
She tagged Brennan in sixth, 34 seconds down on fourth-place Finland. Brennan has proved an integral part of the U.S. World Cup presence this season. Her presence on the relay team in Seefeld comes as no surprise. Although earlier prognostications would have predicted her as a classic leg selection.
“I have never done a skate leg in a relay at this level so I was excited to try something new and I’ve had such an improvement in skating this year so I was kind of excited to put that to use,” Brennan stated over the phone.
Ahead of Brennan was Riitta-Liisa Roponen of Finland, thirty-five seconds out. Close behind was a three team cluster all within fifteen seconds.
“I didn’t want to give them a free ride so I tried to start off really hard to open up that gap enough that they didn’t get any ideas,” Brennan said of her quick start. “Then I could see Finland in front, and it was so deceiving because the snow was so slow that you could see the person in front of you for quite a ways. … I just kept my eyes on Finland and kept trying to ski strong, and ski to my strengths and just try to make that gap as small as possible”
Brennan’s push created some sixth place breathing room for the U.S. She closed down on the Finns. Roponen tagged Evelina Piippo with a diminished buffer of 13.3 seconds as Diggins was tagged.
By 17.5 k, a no-fan of hot weather skiing Diggins had passed Piippo and placed the U.S. in fifth by 10.5 seconds. With the Diggins anchor leg and a rookie scrambler in Kern, the U.S. placed fifth overall (+3:06.0).
As the U.S. women’s 4 x 5 k roster evolves they will continue to find themselves in a hyper-competitive field with three teams in a Norway, Sweden, and Russia as a winning threat. If cross-country skiing were a salary cap sport, those three nations would have incurred a massive luxury tax.
But you cannot buy moxy when it comes to the bury-yourself athlete.
Bjornsen noticed a trait today about Kern which can also be attributed to the day’s collective U.S. effort.
“I was proud of [Julia Kern] today,” Bjornsen said. “As I told her after my race, I think guts is something that you cannot necessarily train into somebody. And when I see someone explode in a race like that the first thing that comes to my mind is that girl has got guts.”
The work-from-the-back fifth place was a collective gutsy affair for the U.S.
Canada’s Katherine Stewart-Jones, Emily Nishikawa, Cendrine Browne, and Dahria Beatty were 12th on the day (+5:02.7).
– David Brown contributed