Polish depose Norway ski queen

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In a the midst of a disappointing day for Norway, Polish cross country skier Justyna Kowalczyk decisively ended the reign of Norwegian champion Marit Bjørgen in the 10 kilometer classic at the Sochi Olympics on Thursday. An injured Kowalczyk snatched the gold and Norway’s Therese Johaug was thrilled with bronze, but favourite Bjørgen described her fifth-place finish as a “collapse.” There were no medals for Norway in freestyle skiing or the biathlon either, and even the country’s popular curling team lost a match.

Poland's gold medal winner Justyna Kowalczyk (right) reacts after soundly beating Norway's Marit Bjørgen, who collapsed onto the snow, in the women's 10K classical-style cross-country race on Thursday at the 2014 Winter Olympics. PHOTO: AP/Matthias Schrader/NTB Scanpix

Poland’s gold medal winner Justyna Kowalczyk (right) reacts after soundly beating Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, who collapsed onto the snow, in the women’s 10K classical-style cross-country race on Thursday at the 2014 Winter Olympics. PHOTO: AP/Matthias Schrader/NTB Scanpix

Bjørgen took out podium finishes in her last 16 international championship races leading up to the Winter Olympics, and won gold in her first event at Sochi, the 15 kilometer classic and freestyle event on Saturday. Her streak ended when she fell during Tuesday’s sprint event, and was compounded by the loss to her arch-rival Kowalczyk.

The 33-year-old said she felt in good form ahead of the race, and was very disappointed with her peformance. “It’s possible I opened too hard, I don’t know,” she told state broadcaster NRK. “I tried and fought the whole way, but I totally collapsed in the last kilometers, and then the podium slipped away.” Bjørgen said the first half of the race was fine, but it became “very heavy,” especially in the last 1.5 kilometers. “I can’t remember feeling like that ever,” she explained, but said she was looking forward to Saturday’s relay.

Kowalczyk competed with a much-publicized fractured foot, and shocked many by powering home for gold. She finished 18.4 seconds ahead of Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, and 28.3 seconds ahead of Johaug. “I’m on very strong pain medication, which means I’m pain free for three hours,” Kowalczyk told the post-race press conference. “So it went fine!” When asked if the gold medal would motivate her further, she said she wasn’t thinking about anything but the win. “I’m just really glad to have taken the gold,” she said. “This was the most important run of my life. Now I’ll just celebrate it.”

Johaug was ecstatic to win her first individual Olympic medal, and said it felt like gold. “It was a struggle the whole way,” she said. “I had to fight both my head and body. My legs were so stiff at the end. I had some bad grip, and slipped a bit. But Justyna was by far the best today. I’m happy that I managed to match her pace well in the second round.”

Nonetheless it was a disappointing finish for the Norwegian team, and the post-race analysis focused on why the women performed so relatively poorly in the distance event. “We had hoped to compete for the gold medal, but we should be satisfied with Therese’s bronze,” national coach Egil Kristiansen told broadcaster TV2.

Slopestyle ski near miss
Norway’s slopestyle ski veteran Andreas Håtveit was all smiles after the last race of his career, despite starting as one of the favourites and missing the bronze medal by 0.6 points. “I’m not usually satisfied with fourth place, but I think the three who ended up on the podium deserved it,” he said in an upbeat interview with NRK. “So it’s good that it happened as it did.”

While his decade-long career wrapped up with Thursday’s event, he told TV2 he was hardly a retiree. “I have a wife and kids at home, and I still have to pay the loan on the house and car and boat!” The 27-year-old plans to work on maintaining the slopestyle course he has built in his yard.

The event was a US whitewash, with Americans Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nicholas Goepper taking out the podium positions. Norwegians Aleksander Aurdal and Øystein Bråten finished seventh and tenth respectively.

Curling team trumped by Swedes
In a blow to Norwegian national pride, the curling team was handed its first defeat in the Winter Olympics by Sweden on Thursday. The 5-4 defeat doesn’t put Norway out of medal contention, as China is the only undefeated team so far in the qualifying rounds. But it still hurt, Norway’s Thomas Ulsrud told NRK. “Sweden played well today, we were a little off,” he said. “We had many chances, but unfortunately didn’t manage to take them. There are some who say that the most important thing is to beat Sweden. Now we haven’t managed to do that, we have to focus on winning the whole thing!”

Ulsrud said the team is still on track for the finals ahead of its clashes against Canada and China on Friday. “It’s about being in the top four,” he explained. “Therefore we would have liked to have been without this loss. The fight on Friday will be quite tough.” The team won silver at the Vancouver Olympics and gold in 2002, but the Norwegians have become internationally renowned for their fancy pants just as much as their Olympic dominance.

Biathlon disappointment
Norway also failed to impress in the men’s individual biathlon event on Thursday afternoon. Emil Hegle Svendsen told NRK he was surprised by finishing so far back, despite hitting 19 out of 20 shooting targets during the 20 kilometre race. The 28-year-old came seventh, finishing 58 seconds behind the gold medal winner, France’s Martin Fourcade. Erik Lesser from Germany took silver, and Russian Evgeniy Garanichev won bronze.

NRK reported Svendsen struggled with his cross country form during the event. “You just have to work on it further,” said Svendsun afterwards. “There are more races. There’s nothing else you can do.” Norwegians Johannes Thingnes Bø, Tarjei Bø, and veteran Ole Einar Bjørndalen finished 11th, 26th and 34th.

Bjørndalen was especially disappointed with his result after winning the 10 kilometre biathlon sprint on Saturday. The 40-year-old said his plan was to shoot well, but he missed one of the five targets in each of the four shooting rounds. “It’s too bad,” Bjørndalen said of the team effort. “We should have a man on the podium in every race. We didn’t manage that today. It’s just too bad.”

newsinenglish.no/Emily Woodgate