On the last day of competition at the U23 World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic, the skiathlon gold medals went to two individuals who have already been dominant at these championships all week. Sergey Ustiugov (RUS) continued his winning streak in the men’s 30 k event with a 2.5 second win over compatriot Evgeniy Belov, who had to settle for silver for the second time this week. Mark Starostin (KAZ) took bronze (+32.4).
By the halfway mark, Ustiugov and Belov had firmly put to rest any hope from their competition that the Russian powerhouse could be broken. The duo worked together to create a clear separation on the pack before the end of the classic leg at 15 k; they came through the exchange zone a good 20 seconds ahead of Sidnre Skar (NOR), who led a sizeable group of skiers.
“It was good [that] me and Evgeniy went away and could work together a little,” Ustiugov said in the press conference afterwards. “The course is quite demanding here and it was tough to ski the twelve laps.”
From there the gap only got bigger. Skar dropped a few places in the chase group as Starostin rose through it, but the difference was too great to make up. Ustiugov now has two gold medals from his first year as a U23 to add to his college of World Junior titles.
“It is amazing to claim second gold medal at the U23 Championships,” Ustiugov said. “It is a dream come true. I performed well last year in Erzurum and I have worked a lot the whole year to come to Liberec in shape.”
Belov, thrwarted by his younger teammate once again, was gracious in defeat.
“Congratulations to Sergey for the gold medal,” he said. “I tried hard to be the winner but it did not work out. It was a tough race.”
Conditions on Saturday were similar to how they’ve been all week: cold, hard tracks and gray skies. Frost coated the trees that lined the course.
“It was cold but we are used to skiing in such conditions,” Belov said.
Starostin’s reaction to a bronze medal was so enthusiastic, you might have thought he’d won. He skied from ninth place at 15 k to third by skiing the fourth-fastest skate split. This is Kazakhstan’s first medal of the week.
“It is an amazing day,” Starostin said. “It is a great success for me, my first big medal from the Championships… The success today has given me big motivation for the need [for] training.”
Thomas Bing (GER), who hung on to Starostin until the very end, could not match the Kazakh’s finishing kick and finished fourth, two seconds off the podium. Dmitriy Salnikov (RUS) took fifth, Fabio Clementi (ITA) finished sixth, and Emil Iverson posted the top Norwegian finish in seventh. Skar, who had started in a promising third, dropped to eighth place by the end.
Erik Bjornsen (USA) led the North Americans with a 16th-place finish.
While the men’s race was a story of continued Russian dominance, the women’s 15 k skiathlon belonged to Norway. Ragnhild Haga took up the mantle for Norway once again in winning her second race of the week on Saturday by just a hair over Debora Agreiter (ITA). Karl Oeyre Slind (NOR) took bronze, 2.3 seconds back from Haga’s winning time.
After a chaotic mass start that narrowed quickly from a slim five-lane chevron to just two tracks, the field began to string out. Elena Soboleva (RUS) led the pack as it came through the pit at the halfway mark and Haga trailed by 13 seconds, but the skate leg proved fortuitous for the Norwegians. Haga and Slind skied the top two skate legs in the field to overtake the leaders and earn two podiums, Norway’s best showing of the week.
Throughout the first half of the race Haga wasn’t sure if she could make up the gap, but she persevered.
“It was really hard,” Haga said. “I had to fight a lot on the classical part. I am really happy I could catch up whir Deborah in the free technique. After the ski exchange I did not know if I could make it. I felt quite good in both classic and skating but free technique part was better for me.”
Agreiter, who was third in the 10 k freestyle earlier this week, was frustrated to have just missed gold again.
“I am little bit disappointed I did not win the gold medal,” she said. “Today believed I could make it but I think I have done a very good job. I knew that Norwegians girls were very good. Looking back now I should have skied technically better but I gave everything. I have learned many things today.”
Just as in the men’s race, the bronze-medalist was much happier than the second-place finisher. Slind was sixth in the 10 k freestyle on Thursday, so a third place finish in spite of a broken pole right after the ski change was a significant step up for her.
“I am really happy for the bronze medal,” Slind said. “It is good to have such a performance… In the skating part I tried to follow Ragnhild and go for the medal.”
After the top three there was a 20-second break to the next finisher. Natalia Zhukova (RUS) was fourth, Anastasia Slonova (KAZ) took fifth and Elena Soboleva (RUS), who led the first half of the race, dropped to sixth. Emilie Kristoffersen (NOR) was seventh.
Caitlin Patterson (USA) led the North Americans in 19th, 1:45 behind Haga’s time.