A trio of unstoppable Norwegian skiers claimed the gold, the silver and the bronze medals in one of the toughest events at the Winter Olympics on Saturday – the endurance contest known as the 30-kilometer women’s mass start. Gold-medal winner Marit Bjørgen also became the best female Winter Olympian of all time, after winning more medals than any other female athlete since the Winter Games began.
Bjørgen’s total haul of six gold medals, three silvers and one bronze has now edged Russia’s Ljubov Jegorova and Lydia Skoblikova of the former Soviet Union out of the top spots. And Bjørgen was thrilled on Saturday to be joined on the winners’ platform by her Norwegian teammates Therese Johaug, who was just 2.6 seconds behind Bjørgen to win the silver, and Kristin Størmer Steira, who claimed her first Olympic medal ever by winning third place.
They all skied 30 kilometers (18 miles) in just over an hour and 11 minutes, making for a truly grand finalé on their last day of competition in Sochi. It was an accomplishment that followed another major victory on Wednesday but also some frustration when they ran into what many claimed were waxing problems last week, when they placed fifth in a relay they were also expected to win.
On Saturday, the thrill of victory quickly replaced the agony of defeat, and the Norwegian women’s triple victory firmed up Norway’s position at the top of the medal rankings at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Bjørgen, who was knocked out of the long-distance Tour de Ski by heart trouble just over a year ago, exclaimed that Saturday was another “great day for Norway,” much like the country’s first day of competition in Sochi two weeks ago. She confirmed that she’d been determined to win the gruelling 30K.
“It was a distance I just really preferred to win,” Bjørgen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “To succeed, it’s a good feeling.”
Johaug was characteristically shrieking with joy after the event, and for Steira, it was a huge personal accomplishment after skiing in many international competitions and often just missing the winners’ podium. She also suffered through a break-up on the domestic front and some health issues before making a major comeback in this year’s Olympics.
It remains unclear, though, whether Bjørgen, now age 33, will carry on her reign as the world’s cross-country skiing queen or abdicate before the next Olympics. “I’m taking one year at a time,” Bjørgen told newspaper Aftenposten just before Saturday’s show of strength. “As long as I have the motivation that’s demanded, I’ll continue. But whether I’ll manage to hold out for another four years, it’s impossible to say.”
National skiing team coach Egil Kristiansen said she has the same determination as Norwegian biathlon star Ole Einar Bjørndalen, who became the best Winter Olympian of all earlier this week. “Marit just likes what she’s doing so much, she likes to train,” Kristiansen told Aftenposten. “At the same time, she’s good at turning downturns into something positive. When things go a bit wrong, it just gives her more motivation to find things she can be even better at.”
Bjørgen’s main non-Norwegian rivals simply couldn’t keep up with her on Saturday. Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, who won the 30K at the last Olympics in Vancouver, dropped out of the race just before the halfway point, and Charlotte Kalla of Sweden, who’s been fighting off illness in recent days, struggled to stay in the race and ended up in 34th place, more than five minutes behind Bjørgen. Kerttu Niskanen of Finland placed fourth in the race, with a time of one hour, 12 minutes and 26.9 seconds.
Kalla gave Bjørgen a congratulatory hug after the race, though. “She’s best when it counts, and she’s been the sovereign for many years now,” Kalla told NRK, adding that Bjørgen was also a good girlfriend. Both Kalla and Kowalczyk also won gold of their own during the Olympics in Sochi.