Norway was leading the gold rush at the Nordic Ski World Championships in Austria after the weekend, and among the Norwegian winners was Therese Johaug. She made a golden comeback from her doping suspension, while teammates won more medals as well.
Two years after sobbing and pounding a table in anger over her use of a lip cream that contained a steroid, Johaug was back on top, winning a women’s 15-kilometer race on Saturday. Her performance was so strong that she could smile and enjoy her victory several kilometers before the race ended.
“This means so incredibly much to me,” she told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) afterwards. “I have looked forward to these championships for two years. I could finally race in a championship again.”
Skiing fans had been waiting to see her in action, and weren’t disappointed. She took the lead after just a few minutes and stayed there, skiing the 15 kilometers that included a change of skis at the half-way point, in just 36 minutes, 54.5 seconds. Ingvild Flugstad Østberg finished second, putting two Norwegian women on the podium along with Natalje Nepryaeva of Russia, who won the bronze, both nearly a minute behind Johaug.
It was their first World Championship race without competition from Norway’s long-regning ski queen Marit Bjørgen, who retired after last year’s Olympics and is now pregnant with her second child. Bjørgen was quick to send congratulations to Johaug, calling her victory “fantastic and impressive,” and promising big hugs when Johaug returns to Oslo.
Johaug herself had tried to dampen expectations about her performance, and downplayed being favoured for four gold medals. She claimed at a pre-race press conference that all she really wants to win is respect, and make up for the two years she lost because of the doping charges that resulted after a team doctor gave her a prescription cream to treat lip sores in the summer of 2016.
She kept training on her own, attended to her clothing business and claims she learned a lot, not least about how the fight against doping has to be strict and unyielding, also in cases of accidental use of banned substances. Johaug also claims she ultimately found “an inner peace” during her suspension, and that it was important to live life “outside the skiing bubble.”
Johaug held four individual World Championship titles before this year’s championships began at Seefeld in Austria. She’s tipped for three more in the week ahead.
Men mined medals, too
The Norwegian men also did well on Saturday, with Sjur Rothe winning his first gold medal in the 30-kilometer race with a change of skis midway, and veteran Martin Johnsrud Sundby winning the bronze at an age of 34. Sundby was relieved after struggling to combine professional skiing with family life at home.
On Sunday, the men won their team sprint, with Johannes Høsflot Klæbo and Emil Iversen claiming gold. The Norwegian women (Østberg again, and Maiken Caspersen Falla) had to settle for bronze in their team sprint, which was won by Sweden with Slovenia claiming silver.
All told, Norwegian skiers were holding five gold medals, three silver and three bronze after the first four days of competition that began brilliantly for Norway last week. All the athletes were given a day off on Monday.