Bjoergen strikes gold at Nordic worlds
Marit Bjoergen of Norway earned her third gold medal in three races Monday in Oslo, and Austria won a sprint finish to take the nordic combined normal hill team event at the nordic world skiing championships.
Bjoergen, unbeaten in a distance race since the Vancouver Olympics, crossed the line at the famed Holmenkollen arena to win the women's 10-kilometre classical-style race in 27 minutes 39.3 seconds.
Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, a two-time world champion, led for most of the race but was overtaken in the closing stages and finished 4.1 seconds behind. Aino Kaisa Saarinen of Finland was third, 9.7 seconds back.
Mario Stecher edged Tino Edelmann to give Austria the win over Germany in the first of two nordic combined team events — a large hill competition is held Friday. Host nation Norway was third.
Bjoergen fell to the snow in exhaustion after a thrilling comeback in the cross-country race, but was quickly back on her feet to acknowledge the cheers of thousands of flag-waving Norwegian fans.
The 30-year-old triple Olympic champion set out 30 seconds ahead of her closest rival in a staggered start and didn't know at first whether she had done enough to win.
"I just lay there looking up at the TV screen and waiting for Kowalczyk," said Bjoergen. "Then I heard: 'The gold will go to Marit Bjoergen' and was very happy."
The bells of Holmenkollen church rang out in celebration as Bjoergen pulled on her specially designed puffy gold jacket for the third time.
But Kowalczyk certainly frayed the home crowd's nerves by pushing the Norwegian hard. The Pole burst into a 12-second lead in the opening four kilometres and it wasn't until the closing stages that Bjoergen started to gain. The champion confessed she was skeptical whether she could make up the ground.
"On the last climb I was told the gap was down to two seconds," said Bjoergen. "I thought my trainer was kidding me."
For Kowalczyk, it was time to reflect on yet another defeat to the Norwegian.
"I fought really hard on the uphills for the first four kilometres but I was so tired for the last two," Kowalcyk said.
With the crowd perhaps sensing an unwanted surprise, Kowalczyk said she was the only athlete in the top three who could hear the split times on the stadium loudspeaker.
"Maybe when Justyna was skiing, the spectators were quiet," Kowalczyk said.
Bronze medallist Aino Kaiso Saarinen confirmed that the noise was deafening as she passed the stands and the cheers of the crowd propelled her toward the finishing line.
The 32-year-old Finn was back in top form after a shoulder injury had hampered her preparations earlier in the season.
"This whole season has been a struggle for me, but I always have good fighting spirit," Saarinen said.
In the nordic combined, it was the French team that leapt into the lead in the ski jumping portion. France went into the 4x5K relay with a 13-second head start over Germany after 25-year-old Maxim Laheurte set a new hill record with a 110.5-meter jump.
Olympic champion Jason Lamy Chappuis jumped 107 metres on the normal hill for the third-best score of the morning and it seemed the Frenchman might snatch a medal to compensate for his disappointing 15th-place finish in the individual race.
But the French racers were quickly overhauled, and Austria and Germany held a 23-second lead over Norway after the final relay switch.
A United States team that included Olympic champion Billy Demong and two-time world champion Todd Lodwick finished 54.8 seconds back in fourth place.
The Americans were second-fastest in the relay but were unable to make up a 1:08 deficit after the ski jump.
Stecher and Edelmann's lead appeared unassailable as they entered the final leg, but Norway's Magnus Moan put in a heroic shift to narrow the gap to four seconds before his energy levels finally dwindled and the threat faded.
"It got a little hairy for us with Magnus closing to 10 seconds after 800 metres," Edelmann said.
The intensity of the fight back left the Norwegians wishing Moan had not struggled with illness in the run-up to the worlds.
"Four second starts to feel like a lot after an effort like that," Moan said. "But I think if I'd been in my best shape I could have closed the gap."
Norway tops the medal standings after five days of finals with four gold, two silver and two bronze medals. Austria also has four golds, as well as one silver and one bronze. Germany and Sweden have a gold each, but the Germans have five medals in total to Sweden's two.
The competition continues on Tuesday with the men's 15K cross-country classical race. The world championships run through March 6.