Lightning. Bears. Concrete walls.
Those are a few things that might be able to stop Norway’s Marit Bjoergen right now. Mere mortals from Italy, Finland, and Germany? Fat chance.
Taking the tag from Kristin Stormer Steira with Italy hot on her heels, Bjoergen laid down a blazingly fast final leg—dropping Sabina Valbusa on the first climb and skiing away, uncontested, to her third gold medal of these Games, and Norway’s first in the women’s relay in 26 years.
The real battle unfolded behind, as the chase pack of Finland, Sweden, and Germany quickly swallowed up Valbusa. Without a single medal for her country from the 2010 Games thus far, Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (FIN) was out for blood, driving the pace hard for her two laps of the 2.5 kilometer course. Only Germany’s Claudia Nystad could hang on, passing the Finn on the final climb to take silver, while Saarinen held on for the bronze.
How it Unfolded
With Bjoergen anchoring, Norway may have been the favorite, but their coaches couldn’t take anything for granted until Vibeke Skofterud made it through the first leg unscathed.
Italy and Germany led things out up the first big climb, with the pack still together. Kikkan Randall sat in the second row, just next to Skofterud.
Skiing aggressively, Randall still sat in the lead group on her second lap, then used a fast pair of skis to gap the rest of the field on the course’s biggest downhill. Anna Olsson (SWE), Skofterud, and Katrin Zeller (GER) made up the ground on the climb before the stadium, but Randall still came into the stadium with the leaders, tagging off to Holly Brooks in fourth place—just ten seconds back.
Brooks didn’t have the legs today, though, and she quickly fell off the back. She said afterwards that she’s worried her health problems from the summer (see may have resurfaced, and she spoke to the team doctor about doing some testing to figure out what’s wrong.
“It was really fun having Kikkan come in in such a strong position,” Brooks said. “There was a little pressure going into that, but I just know that can ski a lot faster than I’m skiing right now, and it’s pretty frustrating.”
At the front, Norway, Italy, and Germany were still together, while Sweden’s Magdalena Pajala was gapped going up the big climb on her first lap.
As the three leaders duked it out up ahead, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk was working her way back from the 18-second deficit she’d inherited from her teammate, Kornelia Marek. Echoing yesterday’s spectacular second leg by Lukas Bauer (CZE), Kowalczyk made up all the ground Marek had lost, then just kept on going.
No one could respond when she came by—Marianna Longa (ITA), Therese Johaug (NOR), and Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle (GER) couldn’t hold on, and the lead group shattered. Kowalczyk’s leg ended up being nearly thirty seconds faster than anyone else’s, and she tagged off to Paulina Maciuszek with a ten-second lead.
Which promptly evaporated. Maciuszek was no match for the power of Norway’s Kristin Stormer Steira and Italy’s Silvia Rupil, as that pair caught her and dropped her almost in the same breath.
Meanwhile, after a miserable first leg, Finland’s Riitta-Liisa Roponen had worked her way back to a chase group, which included Sweden, Germany, and France. Led by Charlotte Kalla (SWE)—who turned in the fastest split of the leg—that group stayed within striking distance of Steira and Rupil, coming through the exchange just fifteen seconds behind.
But with Bjoergen anchoring Norway, the most any of those teams could hope for was silver or bronze. While Italy and Norway came into the exchange together, Bjoergen was gone before Valbusa could say “arrivederci.” Bjoergen gapped the Italian going up the first climb out of the stadium, and was off to her third gold of the Games. Despite coming to a full stop before the finish to pick up a Norwegian flag, and skiing the last hundred meters with no poles, she still had the fastest time of her leg.
After being dropped by Bjoergen, Valbusa was fading hard. The chase group behind her was gaining, led by a ferocious Saarinen. As the Finn V2-ed her way up the course’s big climbs, it didn’t seem like there was any way that Germany’s Claudia Nystad or Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter could hold on, and indeed, Ingemarsdotter came off on the last lap—just as the trio caught and passed Valbusa. But Nystad hung tough, and somehow found the energy to go by Saarinen on the final climb and ski in for silver.
Anchored by Caitlin Compton, the U.S. finished 12th on the day. Like Brooks, Compton said that she wasn’t at her best today, and also may have had trouble with her skis, according to Zach Caldwell, one of the members of the U.S. service staff. Canada was 14th.
Full report to come!