FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden, is brought to you by the generous support of L.L. Bean, now featuring a complete line of Kikkan Randall training wear.
FALUN, Sweden — All over the trails of the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships venue in Falun, people buzzed about Charlotte Kalla. They sang her name, cheered anytime the stadium announcer brought her up and roared as she skated by during the 10-kilometer freestyle individual start on Tuesday.
Three days earlier at her home nation’s World Championships, the 27-year-old Kalla had claimed a bronze medal in the 15 k skiathlon. One of Sweden’s best medal chances throughout the championships, there were a couple other races that Kalla, a 2010 Olympic champion in the 10 k skate and 2011 world champion in the classic team sprint (with Ida Ingemarsdotter), had been considered a favorite in as well. The 10 k skate was at the top of the list.
So when she soared through each timing point on the women’s course (made up of two unique loops) more than 10 seconds, then 20 seconds, 30 and finally 40 seconds ahead of any of the 48 women who started before her, the 13,800-strong crowd went nuts.
“I was a little bit nervous before the start and for the whole morning; I just longed to go to the competition area and put on my race bib,” Kalla said in a post-race press conference. “When the speaker presented me before the start, it was an amazing atmosphere in the stadium. I had to keep calm and focus on skiing all the way and not just go crazy because there was a big crowd cheering for me.”
While Swedish spectators grew increasingly giddy over Kalla, the 49th starter of 71, two other names became a big part of the conversation at Lugnet Arena: Caitlin Gregg, an early leader in bib 3, and later in the race, Jessica Diggins in bib 37.
Known in the U.S. as Jessie, Diggins wasn’t exactly a surprise; the 2013 World Championships freestyle team sprint champion (with Kikkan Randall), she had already earned her stripes and risen to the forefront of international cross-country skiing.
One Norwegian journalist said after the race he couldn’t even find her International Ski Federation (FIS) profile. It existed, but with a top World Cup result of 14th in the 10 k skate in 2010 in Canmore, Alberta, and an individual best of 47th at her last World Championships in 2009 in the 30 k freestyle mass start, one might understand why the independent American skier was overlooked.
“I must admit, I have never heard of her,” Norwegian women’s coach Egil Kristiansen told NTB afterward.
With a finishing time of 25:49.8, Gregg put herself in the leader’s chair for what ended up being almost half the race. Her fellow U.S. World Championships team member, Diggins ultimately bumped her out of it by 5.9 seconds.
Lightly falling snow at the start turned into a full-fledged downpour of wet-and-heavy snowflakes throughout the race, making an already soft track in above-freezing temperatures even slower. And while some of the Norwegians, like Therese Johaug, later said they felt like they were skiing on glue, the U.S. women didn’t seem to have a problem. Nor did Kalla.
The Swede rounded the course in 25:08.8, 41 seconds faster than Diggins to replaced her in the fur-covered chair at the finish. Kalla hardly spent any time in it, though, congratulating Diggins on a strong race before sitting down briefly for a few photos then getting up to put on dry clothes. By the time she returned to the finishing pen, the race was just about over.
And nobody — none of the Norwegians, including Johaug, the 10 k skate’s defending world champion, nor Marit Bjørgen — came anywhere close.
“I think I had the focus on the right thing for the most of my race,” Kalla said in the press conference. “[I heard] coaches screaming that I’m going for the gold medal, but it’s putting that behind me and trying to ski as fast as possible.”
At 1.5 k, Johaug in bib 63 came within 8.2 seconds of Kalla, and Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen, the 47th starter, was 11.4 seconds back in third. Norway’s Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen started 43rd and ended up 11.8 seconds off Kalla’s time at that marker, and Bjørgen, who started 65th, was 12 seconds behind Kalla at 1.5 k.
By the halfway point, Kalla was 17.5 seconds up on Diggins and 25 seconds ahead of Gregg in third. Another Swede, Maria Rydqvist ranked fourth at 5 k, 27.1 seconds behind, and Poland’s Sylwia Jaśkowiec — coming off bronze in Sunday’s freestyle team sprint — stood in fifth (+28.2).
Also at 5 k, Heidi Weng as the top Norwegian in bib 61 clocked through 49.8 seconds after Kalla. Jacobsen ranked 22nd there (+49.9), and Johaug and Bjørgen were 26th and 32nd, respectively, with Bjørgen more than a minute back with 5 k to go.
Kalla came through the 6.3 k checkpoint 36.3 seconds faster than Gregg in second place and 36.6 seconds ahead of Diggins in third. By 7.8 k the Swede was up to 40.2 seconds ahead of Gregg and 40.9 ahead of Diggins. Kalla extended that gap in the last two kilometers to win by 41 seconds for her first individual title at World Championships.
“It’s a dream come true, to become world champion at home,” Kalla told Expressen. “It probably has not really dawned on me yet. I need enough time for it to melt in.”
Diggins, who achieved silver for the best-ever U.S. women’s distance result at an international championships, and Gregg, who helped notch a historic U.S. double podium with bronze, felt similarly. Once the results were final, the 23-year-old Diggins fell to her knees in tears. Gregg, 11 years her elder, hugged her at the finish.
“World championships and Olympic games, sometimes crazy things happen, and people who are favorites don’t always come out on top,” Diggins said. “You never know, especially with the snow today, [I thought], ‘Okay, here’s a chance. Why not me? Someone’s going to be on the podium and I have as good shot, I’ve trained as hard as anyone, and I want it as much as anyone,’ so I think with that in mind, we just went out there for every second.”
“Right off the bat, I just knew everything was clicking,” Gregg recalled. “It was that fantastic feeling you hope for when you get to a championship event, of like, yeah, this is just happening, keep it going, keep it going. I knew that I could only put down the best effort I could. I’ve been talking to [my husband] Brian and really trying to outline how to approach the course, and I just basically was executing my plan for the day and skiing consistently and skiing aggressively the whole way.”
With a goal of being in the race leader, she accomplished that, but it took some time for Gregg to realize that she was an actual podium contender.
“I knew I had two girls [starting] ahead of me,” Gregg said, referring to Japan’s Yuki Kobayashi in bib 1 and Italy’s Marina Piller in bib 2. “I looked at their results from previous races to know where they were on the World Cup so I used that to kind of say, OK if I’m pulling them in, this is a really good race for me…”
Also for the U.S., Randall started fourth, 30 seconds behind Gregg, and ended up 15th, 1:25.2 behind Kalla. The U.S. women put four in the top 15, with Liz Stephen finishing 10th (+1:06.4).
“I did get a back split at one point that I was still tied for the lead at one-and-a-half k, which was a really positive feeling out there,” Gregg explained. “After that, it just all kind of drowned out — I don’t remember hearing any splits or anything. It was all just kind of mumble jumble.”
Diggins said she also stuck to her race plan, which involved breaking the course down into eight climbs, attacking each one then making a point to recover after each as well.
“As it was snowing, I knew that the course was going to get slower, so on the downhills I was setting my skis on edge and going knocked-kneed because maybe I would have fallen,” she said. “It was very fast. I was happy to stick with the plan and pace Mördarbacken [the big climb] like I wanted to. The crowds and the fans are amazing, but then you would just start wanting to go crazy and then do you blow up.”
While Scandinavian fans also cheered loudly for contenders like Johaug and Bjørgen, it wasn’t their exuberance that caused the Norwegians to have a massive off day.
“I think the skis were not perfect today, so it’s not only the snow,” Bjørgen told reporters afterward.
Bjørgen, a 34-year-old, 20-time World Championships medalist, ended up 31st, 2:23.6 behind Kalla, for her first time outside the top 24 in a World Championships race in at least 14 years. According to Norwegian media, the team didn’t anticipate the amount of snowfall that settled in Tuesday afternoon, and the Swedish ski federation had its own meteorologist, which predicted the exact conditions. Based on online weather models, the U.S. Ski Team also expected the snow.
“There were several things that worked out [for our team today],” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover told VG. “The snow played a big role. Obviously, we had seen snow in the weather forecast.”
But for some reason, the Norwegians missed the memo and all five of its women missed the top 20. Weng as the top skier finished 22nd (+1:51.9), Johaug was 27th (+2:14), Ragnhild Haga was 29th (+2:20.4), and Jacobsen ended up 33rd (+2:32.4). And while they were disappointed, Johaug told reporters she wasn’t angry.
“I don’t blame the guys in the wax trailer, they work their butts off,” Johaug told Dagbladet, according to a translation. “Most of the time they nail it, but today they didn’t. That’s too bad. It’s not the end of the world, but I know I’m better than 27th.”
In five-career World Championships, Johaug had never been outside the top 10.
“That’s just ridiculous,” she added. “I pretty much cant remember the last time that happened.”
Moving on, she vowed four Norwegian women would be hungry for Thursday’s 4 x 5 k relay.
“I can promise you that there are four very revenge-crazed Norwegian girls at the start line there,” Johaug said.
At the end of the day, the several coaches complimented the Americans. U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb said the door of their wax room hadn’t shut with so many people stopping by to congratulate them.
“It’s a huge surprise,” said Kristiansen, the Norwegian women’s coach. “If anyone had put money on this podium before the race, I believe they would be very rich by now.”
VG pointed out that the U.S. Ski Team has 10 percent of the budget of the Norwegian national team, which spends about $7 million dollars a year.
“For us as a smaller ski nation, we must get everything to fall into place on the same day,” Grover told VG. “We were a bit lucky that several of our girls started a little early, but we also had wonderful skiing.”
The Norwegian saga aside, Kalla considered her gold on Tuesday more meaningful than her 2010 Olympic win because of the level of competition she faced.
“It is much tougher competition among the ladies in the World Cup now,” she told Expressen. “So it feels larger.”
Rydqvist was the second Swede in the top four, 48.6 seconds behind Kalla and 1.7 seconds off the podium. France’s Anouk Faivre Picon placed fifth (+55.2), Switzerland’s 21-year-old Nathalie von Siebenthal notched sixth (+59.2), and Japan’s Masako Ishida finished seventh (+1:02.5). Niskanen ended up eighth (+1:04.5), Switzerland put two in the top 10 with Seraina Boner in ninth (+1:05.8), and Stephen was the third U.S. woman in the top 10 in 10th.
— Lander Karath, Gerry Furseth, and Inge Scheve contributed reporting