Marit Bjoergen earned an emotional victory in the women's 15-kilometer skiathlon Saturday, giving the Norwegian cross-country skier her fourth career Olympic gold medal a day after her teammate's brother died.
Bjoergen pulled away from Swedish rival Charlotte Kalla on the final straight to win in 38 minutes, 33.6 seconds and defend her title from the 2010 Vancouver Games. Kalla was 1.8 seconds behind.
Heidi Weng of Norway won a three-way sprint for the bronze medal, coming 13.2 seconds behind.
It's been an emotional two days for the close-knit Norwegian team after it announced that Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen's brother died “suddenly and unexpectedly” Friday. Jacobsen was not set to compete on Saturday, but her four teammates were all in tears as they embraced after the race. Bjoergen and Weng both cried on the podium during the flower ceremony.
Bjoergen was the most successful athlete of the Vancouver Games with three gold medals, a silver and a bronze and showed right away she has the ability to match that feat in Sochi.
She said this week she'd be happy with only one gold, but she'll have to set a more ambitious target now.
“One gold was my goal, so now I can relax a little bit,” Bjoergen said. “I can enjoy the rest of the games.”
With a group of five skiers staying together until the last kilometer, Kalla tried to pull away in the final uphill section before the sprint. Only Bjoergen was able to match her pace going up the hill, and the Norwegian then went in front as they entered the stadium.
Kalla had no answer for the strong finish by Bjoergen, who had time to turn her head and then raise her arm in celebration as she crossed the line.
“I knew Charlotte would be strong in the sprint and she's good at the climbs but I thought that if I could follow her, I would have a chance,” Bjoergen said. “I knew it would be a sprint. I did my best for the last 100 meters and I was sprinting very hard at the end.”
At 33 years and 324 days, Bjoergen became the oldest woman to win an individual Olympic cross-country gold, beating Stefania Belmondo's record of 33 years and 27 days. The Italian won the 15K freestyle at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
The skiathlon event starts with 7.5 kilometers of classical-style skiing before switching to freestyle, making it a tough test of the athletes' all-round abilities.
Kalla won the 10K freestyle event in Vancouver four years ago and showed she has vastly improved her classical style since then. She has never finished on the podium in a skiathlon on the World Cup circuit and celebrated as if she had won on Saturday, raising her arms to celebrate as she crossed the line behind Bjoergen and then jumping up and down holding her skis in the air.
“This is my dream,” Kalla said. “It means a lot to me to be on the podium for the first time. I could not imagine this before the race.”
She prevented a Norwegian sweep of the medals, with Therese Johaug finishing fourth. Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland was fifth.
Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, a three-time overall World Cup champion who has been struggling with a foot injury, was with the leading group of seven skiers at the halfway mark but slipped and fell just as she was about to enter her station for the ski change and lost several seconds.
She exited the ski change 7.4 seconds behind Kalla, and never came any closer during the freestyle. Entering the last lap, she was nearly 19 seconds behind and finished sixth, 58.1 seconds back.
The next women's event is the individual freestyle sprint on Tuesday, when Bjoergen is again among the favorites. The men's 30K skiathlon is Sunday.