There will be no first-time repeat champion in the 10 kilometer classical at the 2014 Olympic Games. With an overall time of 28:17.8, Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland unseated defending champion Charlotte Kalla of Sweden on Thursday to take her first gold medal in Sochi.
Starting her race in the No. 43 position, Kowalczyk glided beautifully and in rhythm throughout, continually besting the times set by Kalla at every checkpoint. By the time the Polish skier got to the finish line she was so obviously spent that she collapsed and broke into tears at the finish line—a well-deserved moment of weakness that was not present throughout her run.
Kowalczyk finished the race 18.4 seconds ahead of Kalla, as the Swede matched her silver medal from earlier this week in the 15 kilometer skiathlon. Therese Johaug of Norway earned her first individual Olympic medal with bronze, atoning for her heartbreaking fourth-place finish in the skiathlon.
Kowalczyk, 31, was one of just five skiers to come in under the 29-minute mark. While the times paled in comparison to the 10-kilometer marks set in Vancouver four years ago, the classical discipline and surprisingly untenable terrain made Thursday's event a true test of endurance.
For the second straight day in Sochi, temperatures rose well above freezing. Racers surprisingly donned short-sleeve shirts and many were gassed by the end of the competition, with Olivia Wittels of NBC Olympics highlighting the high temperature as the overarching reason:
Still, the high temperatures couldn't stop Kowalczyk from continuing her Olympic reign as the best in the classical discipline. She won the 30-meter classical in Vancouver and was considered by the Associated Press as the favorite coming in. But a disappointing sixth-place finish in the skiathlon—the AP chose her as the likely silver medalist—left it open to question whether she was succumbing to injury.
Kowalczyk is currently skiing through a small fracture in her foot, which she injured in January and has been nursing back to health while still training. While it would have been easy for her to make excuses or even drop out, Kowalczyk has made clear her commitment is to winning medals first, her health second.
"End of discussion about my foot, please," Kowalczyk said in a Facebook post, per the Associated Press (via Yahoo! News). "The five Olympic rings are an obligation. This is what (we) need to concentrate on."
Kowalczyk is one of the most decorated cross-country skiers in history. She won the Tour de Ski a record four times from 2009-13 and has now medaled in each of the last three Olympic Games. Her three medals in Vancouver—a gold in the 30 kilometer classical, a silver in the individual sprint and a bronze in the 15 kilometer pursuit—established her as Poland's best hope going forward.
It also made her viewed by many as the best overall competition for Marit Bjoergen. The Norwegian was a 10 kilometer classical 2006 silver medalist in Turin and won her eighth Olympic medal with a gold this week in the skiathlon.
"One gold was my goal, so now I can relax a little bit," Bjoergen said, per the Associated Press (via Los Angeles Times). "I can enjoy the rest of the games."
Starting off her race in almost direct competition with Kowalczyk, the classical was expected to be one of the best head-to-head skiing matchups in these Games. Instead, Kowalczyk continually bested her greatest rival at every checkpoint and Bjoergen managed only a surprising fifth-place finish. This follows a sixth-place finish in the semifinals of the cross-country sprint, meaning Bjoergen has come home empty-handed in each of her last two events.
As noted by Wittels, Bjoergen struggled in the stretch run of the race:
Nevertheless, Thursday afternoon belonged to Kowalczyk. Already the most decorated Winter Olympian in Poland history, Kowalczyk continues her climb up the all-time hierarchy with her victory.
It will be interesting to see how much longer these competitors keep pushing themselves to the limit. At age 31, Kowalczyk is closer to the end of her skiing career than the beginning. Same goes for the 33-year-old Bjoergen. Johaug, 25, and Kalla, 26, seem like natural fits to ascend and take their place, but there is a ton that can happen within a four-year Olympic window.
With a few more events still upcoming in Sochi, though, Kowalczyk will be just fine holding off the future for a little longer.
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