Norway was a heavy favorite to defend its gold medal in the 4x5-kilometer women's cross-country relay on Saturday, but the Norwegians could never quite get on track, opening the door for Sweden to take gold in the event for the first time since the 1960 Squaw Valley Games.
Sweden showed a great deal of heart and determination, as it needed a massive effort down the stretch in order to track down Finland and Germany. The Swedes were near the front of the pack for most of the race, and they ultimately seized the moment.
According to Kris Boswell of Radio Sweden, the victory gave Sweden its first gold medal of the Sochi Games and furthered its cross-country dominance:
EIGHT medals so far for Sweden in the cross-country skiing. And now their first gold! #Sochi2014— Kris Boswell (@KrisBoswellRS) February 15, 2014
Finland and Germany took silver and bronze, respectively, in what was one of the most competitive cross-country races Sochi has had to offer. The full rundown of how all 14 competing nations fared is as follows:
The 4x5-kilometer relay lasted just over 53 minutes all told, but it was jam-packed with action from start to finish. Here is a look at the biggest storylines that observers will be talking about for a long time to come.
Sweden Mounts Huge Comeback to Take Gold
It wasn't known until the closing seconds of the 4x5-kilometer relay that Sweden would top the podium, but the Swedes did well to keep themselves in it throughout. Sweden never finished a leg in any worse position than third place, and that ultimately allowed it to make a late move for gold.
Anna Haag was unable to hold a lead through two legs, and she left anchor Charlotte Kalla in a tough spot. The Swedes were in third place, 25.7 seconds behind Finland, when Kalla took the course, but she mounted a furious comeback that resulted in a three-skier battle for gold down the stretch.
Kalla left caution to the wind as she emptied the tank in order to catch the Finns and Germans. In some ways, the stubbornness of Krista Lahteenmaki and Denise Herrmann aided Kalla's comeback. Rather than working together, Lahteenmaki and Hermann battled each other for first place. That took its toll and opened the door for Kalla.
Kalla was able to close the gap in the final meters and make a spectacular pass on the inside, which CNN World Sports called one of the Olympics' best performances thus far:
Although it was a total team effort, Kalla was definitely the hero, and she will almost certainly receive a hero's welcome when she and her teammates return home.
Kikkan Randall and Team USA Struggle
American cross-country skiing star Kikkan Randall entered the 2014 Winter Olympics with huge expectations surrounding her. Entering Sochi, no American woman had ever won an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing, but the prevailing thought was that Randall was a virtual lock to take one and had a chance to nab a second if things broke her way.
Unfortunately, the 31-year-old native of Salt Lake City, Utah, will return to the United States without any hardware in tow. Randall was supposed to set a blistering pace for the American women in the 4x5-kilometer relay, and it initially looked as though she was going to do that. Randall quickly ran out of steam, however. By the time the first leg came to an end, she had put Team USA at a nearly 40-second disadvantage, according to Rachel Blount of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
Wow, Kikkan Randall of US starts strong but falls way behind late in leg 1 of cross country relay. US in 12th, 39.7 seconds behind.— Rachel Blount (@BlountStrib) February 15, 2014
For Randall, it was yet another disappointment at the Laura Cross-Country Ski & Biathlon Center. Although Team USA wasn't necessarily favored to nab a medal in the relay, they were supposed to be in the mix. Randall was supposed to reach the podium in the 1-kilometer sprint, though, and she failed to get out of her quarterfinal race.
Which team was the biggest disappointment of the 4x5-kilometer relay?
Just like in the team relay, Randall seemingly ran out of gas down the stretch. Randall missed out on qualifying for the semifinals of the 1-kilometer sprint by five one-hundredths of a second, which had to be gut-wrenching. American teammate Jessie Diggins felt terrible for Randall after the near miss, according to Steve Politi of NJ.com.
"My heart broke a little bit," Diggins said. "Of course, I want to race well for me, but mostly, I was hoping for the best for her. I was hoping that she'd be able to fulfill her dreams."
Diggins was the anchor for Team USA in the relay, but the Americans were so far behind by the time she took the course that mounting a comeback was simply impossible. Randall will bear the burden of her poor performance for a long time, but the Americans simply weren't good enough as a whole.
The focus now shifts to Randall's future. She will be 35 by the time the 2018 Olympics come around, and it is difficult to imagine her getting much better.
Stamina was a huge problem for her in Sochi, and that is something she'll have to work on moving forward. Even if she does manage to grind it out for four more years, it seems likely that her best chance to medal has passed her by.
Finland Blows Big Lead, Salvages Silver
Although Finland has been a dominant cross-country nation for a very long time, the women's relay hasn't been a signature event for the Nordic country. Since winning gold in the first Olympic women's 4x5-kilometer relay way back in 1956, the Finns had been unable to capture anything better than silver. Finland won bronze in the event at the 2010 Vancouver Games and entered Sochi with gold medal aspirations, although it figured to face a tough test from chief rivals Norway, Sweden and Germany.
Finland was nearly 16 seconds behind lead dog Russia after the first leg, however, that deficit was quickly erased. Aino-Kaisa Saarinen made up almost the entire margin before making way for Kerttu Niskanen. The 25-year-old Niskanen opened up a big-time lead for the Finns, as Germany trailed by nearly six seconds heading into the final leg.
Lahteenmaki did everything she could to hold off the hard-charging Swedes and Germans late in the race, but she could not quite hang on to gold. According to Fox Sports News, Finland was a mere five-tenths of a second away from breaking a 58-year gold-medal drought in this event:
Sweden claims GOLD in Women's 4 x 5km Cross Country Relay by the smallest of margins from Finland (+0.5) and Germany (+0.9) #Sochi2014— FOX SPORTS News (@FOXSportsNews) February 15, 2014
With that said, it was an improvement from the bronze that Finland won in Vancouver, and it was the third silver all-time for Finland in this race. The four women on the team will likely be left wondering what could have been, but they have nothing to hang their heads about.
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