Fresh from victory in her first cross-country race in more than two years, skier Therese Johaug is back at the top of her sport. She’s worried she may not get as warm a reception when the actual World Cup season starts in Finland this weekend, though, and she’s prepared that some spectators may even boo from the sidelines.
“Anything can happen there,” Johaug told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) after winning Norway’s own season-opener at the Norwegian mountain resort of Beitostølen last weekend. Johaug, who turned 30 in June, trounced her closest competitors and enjoyed lots of cheering and flag-waving from fans along the trails and in the arena.
Her family was also there to cheer her on and lend the same strong support that they did during her two-year nightmare of doping charges and suspension. Johaug tested positive in the late summer of 2016 to a banned substance after using a cream to relieve painful lip sores that contained a steroid.
She fought hard to avoid or shorten the suspension, to no avail, and was banned from competing or training with Norway’s national ski team. She finally finished serving her term last spring, and rejoined the ski team shortly thereafter.
Tragedy struck again, however, with the deaths this summer of two skiing colleagues and good friends. Vibeke Skofterud was killed in a jet ski accident in Arendal and then Johaug’s best friend, Ida Eide, collapsed and died of heart failure during a foot race.
“Life can be brutal,” Johaug told newspaper Aftenposten last month while attending her first high-altitude training session in the Italian Alps since 2015. “It’s good to sit here today and not know what will happen tomorrow. I won’t use the word ‘unfair,’ but there’s been no end to the pressure this team has had to tolerate. At the same time, we stand strong together and can help each other.”
She was nervous before her pro-race comeback last weekend and was bracing this week for the World Cup opener in Ruka, Finland this weekend, followed by more World Cup events in Lillehammer next weekend and back at Beitostølen December 8-9.
“I think lots of people are glad that I’m back,” Johaug told Aftenposten, “but I must be prepared that there can be commentaries and banners against me (during races). I can’t do much about that. I know myself what I’ve done and those around me know what I stand for.”
She said she was prepared for trouble in Finland, which has its own history of doping cases. “We saw what happened when (Norwegian skier) Martin Johnsrud Sundby came back after the asthma case in Kuusamo.” Sundby had been accused of wrongly using asthma medicine, but his suspension was short and occurred during the off-season.
News bureau NTB reported this week, however, that Johaug may not have anything to fear. “The reception from the public here won’t be a problem for Johaug,” NTB reported well-known Finnish sports commentator Pekka Holopainen as saying. “She will be treated in a polite manner.”
Johaug was cautious about all the high expectations fans may have for her, not least after Norway’s long-reigning ski queen Marit Bjørgen retired at the top her career last season. Bjørgen is now expecting her second child and working with the national ski federation. Johaug, long Norway’s crown princess of skiing, is widely viewed as the heir to Bjørgen’s throne.
“I need to ask that folks lower their expectations a bit,” Johaug said. “There are a lot of people who can ski fast, and many who can win. We have to remember there have been other processes in my life that have cost a lot of energy. I haven’t competed for two-and-a-half years, so I really don’t know what will happen.” Last weekend, though, was a promising start.
“Now I have a fantastic weekend behind me,” Johaug told news bureau NTB on Sunday, after taking just a relaxing ski trip at Beitostølen before heading home to Oslo for a few days before traveling to Finland. “Now I’m ready to meet the world’s best skiers also,” she said, after trouncing Norway’s.