Cross-country queen secures reign

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Norwegian ski queen Therese Johaug retained her crown when the season officially kicked off over the weekend with the first cross-country (langrenn) races at Beitostølen in Valdres. Both she and fellow champion Marit Bjørgen had already been voted the country’s most popular athletes, and Johaug’s opening performance was especially impressive.

Therese Johaug won gold at the World Championships in Oslo in 2011 and now appears to be skiing better than ever. She’s also the most popular athlete in Norway. PHOTO: Oslo 2011/Petter Tandberg

Johaug skied, for example, her best 10-kilometer classic race ever, beating Bjørgen herself by 52.2 seconds, a huge margin in the world of competitive skiing. The coach of Norway’s women’s ski team, Egil Kristiansen, was jubilant, telling news bureau NTB that Johaug’s speed and style seemed even better than when she won the tough 30-kilometer race at the World Championships in Oslo last year.

Johaug had also skied well in earlier events during the traditional season opener at Beitostølen, but placed fourth in the sprint that was won by another up-and-coming Norwegian skier, Maiken Caspersen Falla. Bjørgen had decided to sit that race out, to save her strength for Sunday’s 10-kilometer.

Both Johaug and Bjørgen topped a list of sports stars compiled by Sport Insight and reported in newspaper Aftenposten last week. When asked about their huge popularity, Bjørgen, now age 32, said that cross-country skiing simply is a highly respected sport in Norway, and that they both had a good track record.

“We’ve just been ourselves, and I think this has won us a place in people’s hearts,” said Bjørgen, who also shared this year’s prestigious Årets Peer Gynt award with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg as the Norwegians who have been good representatives for the country. Winners for that award are selected by members of the Norwegian Parliament.

Johaug, age 24, added that both she and Bjørgen, along with male skiing star Petter Northug (who placed third on the list of all Norwegian athletes), grew up on farms and were “very down-to-earth, pragmatic” people. “We don’t try to be anything other than what we are,” Johaug said.

Norway’s Marit Bjørgen (left) and Johaug after they won gold and bronze respectively in the women’s 15-kilometer pursuit at Holmenkollen in last year’s skiing world championships. Bjørgen is the second most-popular athlete in the country, after Johaug. PHOTO: Stian Broch/Oslo 2011

Bjørgen, from Midtre Gauldal in the county of Sør-Trøndelad, is a triple Olympic champion and the most successful sprinter in cross-country World Cup  history, with 55 individual victories under her belt. Her extraordinary career has not been without its share of adversity. She recalled a difficult period between 2006-2009, when she had a disappointing performance at the Winter Olympics in Turin in 2006, falling ill a week before the games started. In the individual sprint, usually one of her most successful events, she failed to make the semi finals, and returned home early to Norway. She made a dazzling comeback at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, scooping five medals including three golds.

Fellow veteran Johaug, from Os in Hedmark County, also made it to the podium at the 2010 Winter Olympics, where she was awarded gold in the 4x5km relay. She went on to win her first individual gold medal in the 30km mass start race at the 2011 World Championships in Oslo, famously flinging her arms around the Norwegian King Harald and Queen Sonja at the end of the race in a spontaneous rush of joy.

The pair will be active in the winter sports scene over the four to five months, along with their fellow cross-country ski teammate Kristin Størmer Steira. The 31-year-old Steira’s career has also had its share of setbacks, including the break-up of a nine-year relationship that led to her becoming so thin that she was temporarily not allowed to compete. She has also now made an impressive comeback, and gives a lot of credit for that to her fellow veterans Bjørgen and Vibeke Skofterud, as well as younger members of their group. “We spend a lot more time together than we used to, and we’re all friends” she told newspaper Aftenposten. She added that they used to compete with each other all the time, but now they only compete when they are racing.

After this weekend’s events at Beitostølen, follows the World Cup opener next week at Gällivare in Sweden. It was important for the skiers to get confirmation this weekend, after training during summer and autumn, that everything is on track.

“You can think and believe many things, but it’s when you’re racing that the answers come,” said Bjørgen. Added Johaug: ”It’s really good to come here to Beitostølen and get the Norwegian snow, start skiing, and know that the season is underway.”

Views and News from Norway/Elizabeth Lindsay and Nina Berglund

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