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 — When you’re part of a World Championship team it’s hard to suppress the excitement of winning. Such was the case for Heidi Weng in Thursday’s 4 x 5 k relay at the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships. With Marit Bjørgen carrying the Norwegian flag down the final meters, Weng sprinted from the finish zone to celebrate the victory. However, as Weng ran to her teammate the Norwegian almost beat Bjørgen to the line, forcing the finisher to increase her speed so that she crossed the line first.
“I was worried I would come to the finish line after Heidi,” Bjørgen said with smile in a post-race press conference.
Bjørgen ultimately beat Weng to the line, giving Norway a time of 49:04.7. They were followed by Sweden, who was in a close fight for silver with Finland. The two teams finished 29.2 and 30.9 seconds behind the winners. Trailing by 1:49.9, the U.S. team crossed the line in fourth ahead of Poland and Germany.
Norway’s third consecutive World Championships relay gold wasn’t guaranteed by any means. They were heavily favored entering Thursday’s competition, but the same could be said of the 2014 Olympics where the team finished fifth. Furthermore, the Norwegian women’s best result in Tuesday’s 10 k freestyle was 22nd.
Finland’s Anio Kaisia Saarinen led the charge out of Falun’s Lugnet Ski Stadium to the cheers of 32,000 fans. She was joined by Russia’s Anastasia Dotsenko, and the two led a large pack of eight skiers tackled the first 2.5 k lap of the race. Just behind the leading women were Norway’s Heidi Weng and U.S. skier Sadie Bjornsen.
The large pack remained tight as they entered the second lap of the first leg. As the skiers rounded the corner into the stadium, however, a tangle on course sent Bjornsen spinning. The mishap left the U.S. in eighth and losing ground, as Weng and Saarinen surged ahead to tackle their second lap.
Finland and Norway increased their lead throughout the majority of the first leg’s second lap and ultimately tagged their teammates in first and second. Over 12 seconds back, Sweden’s Sofia Bleckur overcame Dotsenko to enter the exchange in third.
With Norwegian powerhouse Therese Johaug on course the pace quickened and Johaug’s Finnish counterpart, Kerttu Niskanen, was unable match the tempo, losing contact. Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla was not far behind, however, and by the end of the second leg she made up ten seconds on the Norwegian.
When asked how she was able to decrease the distance between her and Johaug, Kalla said that encouragement from the many Swedish fans in addition to speedy skis helped her achieve what was the fastest classic leg of the day.
Johaug explained to the press her decision to remain in the tracks on the course’s downhills helped Kalla decrease the Norwegian’s lead. “On the downhill I was in the track and I think a lost a lot of the seconds there,” she said. “Charlotte told me she stood out of the track, and there it was ice.”
After the second exchange the two Scandinavian rivals began the freestyle portion of the race, giving spectators a thrilling duel. The fight was short lived, however, as Sweden’s Maria Rydqvist crashed on the first downhill of the course. The crash gave Norway’s Astrid Jacobsen the opportunity to create a lead, and by the lap’s 0.7 k mark the Swede was trailing by just under 10 seconds.
“I got caught up in my own boots,” Rydqvist said to the press. “I was a little excited from the start. But I just tried to forget what happened and get into the skating again.”
“At first I thought it was a disaster.” she added. “You have to forget about it and move on, and I think I did that.”
The Swedish fall was also advantageous to Finland’s Riitta-Liisa Roponen, who caught Rydqvist by the end of the leg. The two tagged their respective teammates at an identical 17.8 seconds behind Norway. “I heard [she fell] and that was my point to get her,” Roponen said of her race. “I couldn’t do it immediately but I had power left.”
Norway’s anchor leg, Bjørgen, attacked the 2.5 k course from the start and increased the team’s lead throughout the final 5 k. At the start of her final lap the Norwegian had added over 20 seconds to her team’s lead. Bjørgen explained she was thankful her teammates created a lead for her so that she didn’t have to battle Sweden’s Stina Nilsson in the final leg.
“Thanks to the girls to give me the gap I wanted,” she said in a press conference. “Stina didn’t follow me. I really felt good from the beginning and my skis was perfect.”
While the Norwegian’s solidified the win the battle for second between Sweden and Finland intensified. For the majority of the 5 k leg Finland’s Krista Parmakoski led Nilsson on the relatively flat course. It was only until the final climb that Parmakoski allowed Nilsson to the front. At the crest of the hill, the Finnish skier came to a near-stop. As she stood, the two skiers paused before Nilsson pushed into the descent. Parmakoski tucked close behind.
Parmakoski’s strategy was simple – follow Nilsson into the stadium and use the draft to overcome the Swede in the final meters. The plan did not work as Nilsson, silver medalist in both the individual and team sprints, accelerated in the final meters to secure the silver for Sweden.
“I felt my tactic was that I had to push hard after one kilometer, but then I saw Stina was still behind me,” Parmakoski said. “I changed my plan and I know that I have to be second in the last downhill, but that was not enough and Stina was better.”
Nilsson said the Swedish coaches instructed her to stay behind Parmakoski until the final meters of the relay.
“I got really clear directives as to how to control the race today, and I think I succeeded to apply our tactics,” she said to the press. “It was really nice to coast on the back of the Finnish.”
Norway cleared several historic benchmarks with Thursday’s win. Prior to 2015, only Russia and the former Soviet Union had ever won three back-to-back World Championships relay titles. Norway now has three consecutive titles as well. With 79 medals to its name, Norway also equals the former Soviet Union in total medals in World Championships competition.
Additionally, the relay victory gives Bjørgen her 14th career gold medal. The total matches Elena Välbe of Russia for the most wins of any skier at a World Championships. Despite the groundbreaking achievement, Bjørgen said at this point in her career she cared little for medal statistics.
“I have no thoughts about it now. As long as you are active you are focused on new tasks and flows, and I have no relationship to how many medals,” she said, adding that she would count her medals when she was old and “in a rocking chair.”
The entire Norwegian team explained they were ready for revenge after their fifth-place finish in the 2014 Olympic relay. The poor results in the 10 k freestyle only added fuel to the fire. Bjørgen said the win was not only redemption for the four women, but also for all Norwegians. “At five in Sochi and in the 10 k two days ago we were not good,” she said. “To come back and give the people at home and the people here a gold, it’s incredible.”
Although Sweden failed to match their victory from the 2014 Olympics they described skiing to silver in front of a home-crowd as “amazing.”
“The attitude we set for ourselves today was to be tough. To ski fearlessly. I think all four of us did that,” Kalla said. The silver medal gives the Swede a complete trifecta of medals from competition in Falun. Kalla earned bronze in the skiathlon and gold in the 10 k classic. Nilsson now has three silver medals from Falun.
In third place, Finland notched its first medal of of the Championships. Saarinen expressed hope that the podium would be first of more podiums to come in the remaining three competitions.
“I think we have now opened the game,” she said. “Hopefully there is coming. We inspire the guys tomorrow and of course the other team. This is a good start for us.”
The 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships continue Friday with the men’s 4 x 10 k relay.