Published February 17, 2010
WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) — Marit Bjoergen wondered before the Vancouver Olympics whether she'd be better off skipping the cross-country sprint to save her energy for other events.
All of Norway is thankful she threw that idea aside.
Bjoergen finally earned her first Olympic gold Wednesday by winning the individual classical sprint to complete her medal collection and add the only major cross-country skiing title she was missing.
"I'm very glad I came to the start today," the 29-year-old Bjoergen said. "This is the biggest thing I've ever experienced."
Bjoergen pulled away from Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland and Petra Majdic of Slovenia in a frantic finish to cross the line in 3 minutes, 39.2 seconds and end Norway's gold-medal drought in cross-country skiing. Kowalczyk won the silver medal, and Majdic overcame a rib injury that forced her to ski in grueling pain to take the bronze.
Kikkan Randall of the United States, who won silver in the sprint at last year's world championships when it was a freestyle event, was eliminated in the semifinals.
Bjoergen left both Salt Lake City and Turin with a silver medal, and after taking bronze in Monday's 10K freestyle race the four-time world champion finally secured the top prize.
Tears streamed down her cheeks as she embraced teammate Astrid Jacobsen in the finish area, before she started jumping up and down, holding her skis and poles aloft.
"It's been a dream for me for a very long time," she said. "Now I have everything you can (win) in cross-country."
And after eight long years, Norway is finally back on top of the Olympic podium in what they consider their national sport. The Norwegians failed to win a single gold in Turin and the men's team had a miserable start to the Vancouver Games when all four skiers finished out of the top 25 in the 15K freestyle race.
It was Norway's worst-ever performance in an Olympic event, and set off a storm of angst-filled headlines and comments back home. After Bjoergen's gold and Petter North's bronze in the men's sprint, things are suddenly looking a lot brighter.
And to think she almost skipped the event completely.
Bjoergen wasn't planning to race in the Olympic sprint until winning one on the World Cup circuit in December, and she had doubts even after that.
"I haven't been that good (in sprint) for many years," Bjoergen said. "I knew I had a good chance, but I wasn't one of the favorites."
On Wednesday, though, she looked unstoppable from the start. She had the best time in the qualifying round and dominated both her quarterfinal and semifinal heats. In the final, Bjoergen made her move in the downhill portion leading into the ski stadium at Whistler Olympic Park, going by Kowalczyk on the inside in a curve to take a small lead. She held off the Polish World Cup leader and Majdic around the last bend before pulling away on the final straightaway.
"I saw in the end that nobody was behind me, and I thought, 'This is my chance,'" Bjoergen said.
The Norwegian's performance was almost overshadowed by the drama surrounding Majdic.
The Slovenian was the pre-race favorite but fell in a sharp curve during training earlier Wednesday and tumbled down a three-meter slope on her back, hurting her ribs.
"At that moment I was thinking 'It's over,'" Majdic said. "But the second part of me was just screaming 'I want to go to the finish.'"
She competed in the qualifying round with her face twisted in pain, then collapsed in the finish area and had to be helped to her feet before being taken to a hospital for X-rays.
She returned after doctors determined that no bones were broken, and managed to find enough determination and grit to reach the final and fight for the gold.
Afterward, she hobbled up on the podium for the flower ceremony and needed an escort to prop her up when walking to the news conference, gingerly easing into her chair with another grimace of pain.
"Today, this is not a bronze," she said. "This is a gold with little diamonds on it."