When Charlotte Kalla started her anchor leg of the women's cross-country relay, the two leaders were 25 seconds ahead and four-time Olympic champion Marit Bjoergen was chasing close behind.
When Charlotte Kalla started her anchor leg of the women’s cross-country relay, the two leaders were 25 seconds ahead and four-time Olympic champion Marit Bjoergen was chasing close behind.
In other words, she was skiing for bronze. But for Kalla, bronze wasn’t good enough.
The Swede erased a massive deficit on the final leg and then won a three-way sprint Saturday to give her country its first gold medal of the Sochi Olympics.
“I just wanted to go for gold,” Kalla said. “I knew that if I fight really hard it was possible to cross the finish line first.”
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It was Sweden’s first victory in the women’s 4×5-kilometer relay since 1960, and came on day when heavy favorite Norway only finished fifth.
Kalla was 25.7 seconds behind Finland’s Krista Lahteenmaki and Germany’s Denise Herrmann after the final exchange but gradually erased the deficit and caught up to the two leaders going into the stadium.
On the final straight, the Swede overtook both and beat Lahteenmaki by 0.5 seconds. Herrmann and Germany settled for bronze.
“Charlotte was skiing like a god,” said Anna Haag, who skied the third leg for Sweden. “I love these girls.”
While Kalla provided a spectacular finish to the race, the most surprising performance came from Norway.
The Norwegian women had not lost a relay since 2009 and entered the race as huge favorites, with a team that featured the top four skiers in the overall World Cup standings. But they fell behind on the second leg and by the time Bjoergen set out on the fourth, they were 33 seconds back. Bjoergen couldn’t get much closer, and shut down over the last lap to save energy. Norway finished 53.6 seconds behind Sweden, with France taking fourth.
“It is tough to see because we are so good in relay, we have always been so good, many seconds before the other girls,” said Heidi Weng, who skied the first leg for Norway. “And today others were better than us.”
Kalla became the first athlete to win three medals in Sochi, after taking silver in both the skiathlon and the 10K classical race.
Kalla took gold in the 10K freestyle race in Vancouver, but this was her most impressive Olympic performance yet.
Sweden seemed to have lost its chance at a gold medal after Haag couldn’t keep up with Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen and Germany’s Claudia Nystad on the third leg. But Ida Ingemarsdotter, who skied Sweden’s first leg, knew that with Kalla as the anchor, there was still a chance.
“I know when her eyes go dark, she will go fast,” Ingemarsdotter said.
And with Sweden’s king and queen looking on, Kalla immediately began a relentless pursuit that saw her cut the deficit to 13.2 seconds with 2.5K left. She kept closing the gap on the last lap until she joined the leading duo shortly before going into the stadium.
She was still third at the last curve before the final straight, but used an inside track to go in front and opened up a gap that she kept all the way to the finish line.
After collapsing into the snow, she was immediately mobbed by her teammates in the finish area — but needed a few seconds of rest before she could celebrate.
“We all fell over her,” Haag said. “She was like, ‘Go away, I can’t breathe.'”
Emma Wiken was the fourth team member for Sweden, and helped shake off Norway’s Therese Johaug on the second leg, which was the start of Norway’s collapse. Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen fell even further behind on the third leg.
Finland’s team consisted of Anne Kylloenen, Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, Kerttu Niskanen and Lahteenmaki. Germany had Nicole Fessel, Stefanie Boehler, Claudia Nystad and Herrmann.
Lahteenmaki said she was pleased with the silver, despite letting the huge lead to Kalla slip away.
“I was full of lactic (acid) about 200 meters before finish line,” the Finn said. “I thought I was going to fall, but I was thinking that I just need to fight for a silver medal.”
Herrmann is a sprint specialist, but couldn’t match her other two rivals at the end of a fast 5K.
“I tried to push and attack a little in the last uphill, but it was really hard,” Herrmann said. “We are really happy because not many people thought that the German team would take a medal today.”