You don’t usually see an Olympic cross-country race in short sleeves and tank tops, but that’s what we had here. And in the end, it was a Polish great with a broken foot — Justyna Kowalczyk — surviving the heat to take gold, while 15k skiathlon winner Marit Bjoergen faded and was unable to add to her collection of eight Olympic medals.
Event: Women’s 10k classical
Medalists: Justyna Kowalczyk (Poland), Charlotte Kalla (Sweden), Therese Johaug (Norway)
SportsMyriad projections: Marit Bjoergen (Norway), Justyna Kowalczyk (Poland), Heidi Weng (Norway)
How U.S. fared: Sprint finalist Sophie Caldwell didn’t seem to be wearing anything under her race bib. She dressed appropriately and went out fast — through the first 13 skiers, she was second-fastest. Holly Brooks’ time was 7.7 seconds behind her. Ida Sargent had the last start among the Americans and slid into place just ahead of Brooks. Final places: Caldwell 32nd, Sargent 34th, Brooks 35th.
The best race was Sadie Bjornsen’s. The 24-year-old beat several consistent contenders and finished 18th, 1:41.9 behind the winner.
What happened: The favorites all started in the middle of the pack on the warm day for this race against the clock, with each skier taking off at a 30-second interval. If the snow got slushy as the day wore on, the lower-seeded skiers would need to deal with it.
The top contenders were all within a group of five — Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk started 43rd, Norway’s Marit Bjoergen 45th and Norway’s Therese Johaug 46th. And it was indeed Kowalczyk setting the pace at the 2.2k mark at 5:20. Bjoergen came across just 1.9 seconds back, then Johaug 3.2 back. Two more Norwegians were unsurprisingly in the mix — Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen (starting 44th) and Heidi Weng (42nd). No one else was close.
But by the 5k mark, Weng had fallen back. And Kowalczyk extended her lead over the Norwegians — 9.1 seconds over Bjoergen. Sweden’s Charlotte Falla, starting 40th, slipped ahead of Johaug. Jacobsen, whose brother passed away just as the Games began, had some sort of untelevised mishap and fell 50 seconds back.
Bjoergen came through a 6k checkpoint just ahead of Kowalczyk, but that quickly changed. The Polish skier was digging deep at the 8k mark, and it paid off. When Bjoergen labored up the hill, the Norwegian favorite came across the time check 19.9 seconds back, just ahead of Falla and Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen. Johaug was the only other skier within striking distance — 4.7 seconds separated third from fifth.
Saarinen was the first of the contenders to finish, taking the lead at 28.48.1. Then came Kalla, furiously double-poling down the stretch and drafting behind Russia’s Yulia Tchekaleva. Kalla took the lead, 11.9 seconds ahead of Saarinen.
Bjoergen looked “defeated,” in the words on NBC’s excitable Chad Salmela. As he said that, one of Bjoergen’s skis slipped a little on the uphill.
Then came Kowalczyk, pushing for every last second. She beat Kalla’s time by 18.4 seconds and collapsed into the snow. The leaders: Kowalczyk, Kalla, Saarinen — with two contending Norwegians coming in.
Bjoergen, one of the top skiers ever in this sport, came in pushing just for bronze. She fell 3.1 seconds short.
Johaug was the last skier who could affect the podium, sprinting to bump off Saarinen. It went down to the wire, but Johaug got it by two seconds.
With that, Kowalczyk broke down in tears, overwhelmed by her accomplishment. And why not?