FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.
VAL DI FIEMME, Italy — In classic sprint racing there are sometimes unexpected wins and at others predictable victories. Marit Bjørgen’s tiumph in the opening event at the 2013 Nordic World Ski Championships was a bit of both — it was a show of the Norwegian’s usual dominance on the surface, but also marked the completion of her return from a no-show in Davos last weekend. She won by a huge 2.32-second margin over Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter and teammate Maiken Caspersen Falla.
Slovenia’s Katja Visnar took fourth, Stina Nilsson (SWE) was fifth and Justyna Kowalczyk finished sixth, 6.34 seconds behind Bjørgen in a spread-out finish.
“I am so happy, I must admit that this I did not [expect] this,” Bjørgen told the NRK after her victory.
It is rare to hear Bjørgen confess to doubting herself. Usually poised in the face of enormous pressure from her ski-crazed country, the leader of the Norwegian women’s squad uncharacteristically lost composure before distance World Cup in Davos, Switzerland, last weekend and did not start at the last minute.
Bjørgen admitted to breaking down in tears before the race went off, frustrated at feeling unprepared so close to World Championships.
“I had some hard days in Davos, I think,” Bjørgen told reporters. “That’s what makes the sport so very interesting.”
Less than a week later she was back to her winning ways when it mattered most. Bjørgen’s recent doubts, coupled with her heart arrhythmia scare earlier this season, perhaps explained the depth of emotion behind her cry for joy as she raised her arms in victory.
“I thought before the start today it would be hard to be on the podium, but in the final I’m feeling the skis are perfect and thought that yes, this is possible to be fighting for the podium,” Bjørgen said. “It’s an incredible feeling to have a good start for the rest of World Championships.”
The falling snow changed conditions in the tracks for the heats and complicated matters for many teams, but Bjørgen said her skis were “incredible.” Though she only qualified in fourteenth, she was all business in the rounds and handily won her quarter- and semi-final.
“The track was fitting me good today; it’s a long track, so it was not so important to be fast in the beginning,” Bjørgen said.
She and Falla worked well together in that respect; Falla would start strong and be able to control the pace while her elder teammate worked backed towards the front. In the final Bjørgen seemed almost lethargic out of the gate and left the lanes in dead last, but by the top of the first small hill she’d tucked behind Falla and gained two positions.
As Bjørgen began to make moves, some part of the race was decided to her left when disaster struck her biggest challenger. Kowalczyk’s and Nilsson’s poles made contact as the two vied for position up the first climb and the former went down hard, taking herself out of the race and removing the possibility of a Bjørgen-Kowalczyk showdown in the final meters.
Afterwards Bjørgen said she had no idea Kowalczyk had fallen, but was nonetheless encouraged by the Pole’s absence from the front.
“I didn’t know Justyna was falling, but it she wasn’t first in the climbing I knew everything was possible,” Bjørgen explained. “She is very strong there. When I didn’t see her I knew I had very skis and can push hard in the flats and down hills, so I didn’t look behind me. I really didn’t know she was falling, I was just pushing hard in the front.”
As Bjørgen noted, the rest of the course worked to her advantage. When the pack came over the final crest to the finish she had a gap on Ingemarsdotter that was impossible to close. The Swede held Falla off for her first medal at worlds and second career podium in any race, World Cup or World Championships.
“Marit is a great skier and she’s a tough woman to meet in the final,” Ingemarsdotter said. “I’m really satisfied with second; I didn’t think I was one of the favorites but I had a good feeling after Davos and today I had really good skis and a good feeling in the body.”
Falla, 22, was happy with third despite dropping back from her original lead.
“I’m so happy, very happy. I can’t believe it,” she said. “It’s been a big goal all season and finally I’m finishing here as number three. So it’s a dream come true.”
With two medals from the women’s sprint and Petter Northug’s silver from the men’s race, Norway sits in the medal-count lead after the first event in Val di Fiemme. Roar Hjelmeset, the Norwegian women’s sprint coach, was pleased but cool after the podium ceremony.
“Three medals for Norway is a very good start,” he said. “Maiken had a very good start of the final…but was a little tired in the middle. Marit was very strong.”
A Bjørgen-Falla duo would seem like an obvious choice for Norway in the team sprint after Thursday’s showing, but Hjelmeset said only Falla was a fixture in the scramble leg.
“Maybe Marit will start, maybe not,” he said. “We have a lot of good girls.”
As Bjørgen’s only stated goal going into the championships was to win at least one gold medal, she is now relaxed about what the next few races might hold.
“My goal was one gold medal and I have it now, so now I can enjoy the rest of World Championships,” she said.
Ten years ago in this very valley, a 22-year-old Bjørgen won the first World Championships gold in the freestyle sprint. At the time her name wasn’t intrinsically associated with cross-country supremacy the way it is now, but since 2003 she has collected nine gold medals at World Championships. She’s become one of the biggest names in the sport, but Bjørgen is quick to appreciate how far she’s come.
“I’m a better [skier] for sure. But ten years — you’re getting older, are maybe not so fast,” she said with a laugh. With the performance she put on for Val di Fiemme on Thursday, it should be a while before she slows down.
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting