Bjoergen gets 3rd gold of Olympics as Norway wins women’s cross-country relay

By Mattias Karen, AP
Thursday, February 25, 2010

Norway’s Bjoergen gets 3rd gold in women’s relay

WHISTLER, British Columbia — Marit Bjoergen doesn’t mind being called the queen of the Vancouver Olympics. That’s good, since it’s a nickname she may not get rid of anytime soon.

Bjoergen became the first triple gold medal winner of the games Thursday after leading Norway to a dominating victory in the women’s cross-country relay, deciding the race on the final leg by quickly pulling away from her last remaining rival.

That’s three golds and one bronze for Bjoergen in the four events she’s competed in — with one race yet to go.

“If I’m the ‘queen’ of the Olympics, that’s great,” said the 29-year-old Bjoergen, who also won the individual sprint and 15K pursuit. “But I don’t think about what others think. The feeling I have, with my golds, that’s the biggest for me.”

And it’s a feeling she should be getting used to by now.

After getting just two silvers from the previous two Olympics, the four-time world champion is turning these games into a one-woman show.

On Thursday, Bjoergen went out together with Italy’s Sabina Valbusa at the final exchange, but immediately pulled away and skied alone the rest of the way.

Entering the ski stadium with a massive lead, she had enough time to veer to the side to pick up a Norwegian flag and then ski down the final straight using just one pole. She did a small jump over the finish line before being mobbed by her teammates.

The Norwegian team of Vibeke Skofterud, Therese Johaug, Kristin Stoermer Steira and Bjoergen finished the 4×5-kilometer race in 55 minutes, 19.5 seconds as Norway won its first women’s relay gold since 1984.

“Three of us have been around for a long time,” said Bjoergen, referring to herself and fellow veterans Skofterud and Steira. “We deserve this.”

Germany was second after Claudia Nystad beat Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen in a two-way race for the silver. Finland took the bronze and Italy was fourth after Valbusa faded.

Nystad tagged along behind Saarinen as the Finn gave chase on the first lap, then bided her time before going past her shortly before entering the ski stadium.

“I was glad that Aino-Kaisa Saarinen took the speed up. I could save my energy and strength,” Nystad said. “I decided after one minute on the second lap that I had the energy to go by. The next decision was ‘when.’”

She seized her opportunity when she saw Saarinen go a bit wide in a curve on the final downhill.

“Then I decided ‘OK, let’s attack,’” said Nystad, who won gold in the team sprint with a similar finish. “Just like that.”

While Bjoergen closed out the race, she can thank one of her main rivals for helping the Norwegians out.

World Cup leader Justyna Kowalczyk skied the second leg for an otherwise weak Polish team and quickly climbed from 10th to first, pulling the field apart with her furious pace as Germany and France both fell behind by nearly 30 seconds. Norway’s Johaug and Italy’s Marianna Longa were the only two who managed to stay in contact with the World Cup leader. Their replacements, Steira and Silvia Rupil, quickly pulled away from Poland’s Paulina Maciuszek to make it a two-way race.

Although Rupil stayed with Steira until the final exchange, Valbusa could do nothing about Bjoergen.

The Norwegian pulled away from the start and had an 11-second lead midway through her first lap. That margin only grew as Germany ended up 24.6 seconds back, with Finland 30.4 behind.

After winning the women’s relay at the 1984 Sarajevo Games, the Norwegians have had to settle for five silvers in the event since then.

“I wasn’t even thought of the last time Norway won gold in the relay,” said the 21-year-old Johaug. “It can’t get any better.”

The Finns were a full 45 seconds behind after the first leg, before steadily gaining ground the rest of the way to earn the country’s first cross-country medal of the games.

“This was an exciting race,” Saarinen said. “I tried to fight for second place, but the Germans were a bit better. … It was an amazing day, and anything can happen in the relay.”

The 28-year-old Steira finally got to celebrate an Olympic medal after four previous individual fourth-place finishes — including after losing a photo finish to Kowalczyk in the pursuit last week.

“After all the fourth-place finishes, to finally get a medal — and a gold medal — and doing with the team, it’s a special day for me,” Steira said. “My smile almost goes around my head.”

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