Russian cross-country doyenne
From her stunning exploits in both freestyle and classic events, to her subsequent career as a coach and administrator, Yelena Välbe has devoted a lifetime to cross-country skiing.
A plethora of medals
Hailing from Magadan in the Russian Far East, Yelena Välbe was one of the dominant figures in women’s cross-country skiing for a decade. Between 1989 and 1998 she notched up 17 medals at the Nordic World Ski Championships (including 14 gold), 45 World Cup victories, five Crystal Globes as overall World Cup series winner, and seven Olympic medals, three of them gold. At the 1997 World Championships in Trondheim (NOR), she finished on the podium in every single one of the cross-country events: the 5km classic (gold), 15km freestyle (gold), 30km classic (gold, with a winning margin of 28 seconds), the 4x5km relay (gold) and combined 5km+10km pursuit (silver). The only blemish on Välbe’s CV was her failure to win an individual event at the Olympic Games.
On the Les Saisies course at Albertville 1992, the Russian competed in the colours of the Unified Team, comprising 12 of the 15 USSR republics, finishing on the podium in all five of the cross-country events, winning four individual bronzes in the 5km, combined 10km + 5km pursuit, 15km mass start and the 30km, and gold in the 4x5km relay together with Raisa Smetanina, Larisa Lazutina and Ljubov Egorova.
The next edition of the Winter Games in Lillehammer were less successful for Välbe, who could only finish sixth in the 15km mass start and the 30km, as the individual events were dominated by her team-mate Egorova and Italy’s Manuela Di Centa. However, she won a second Olympic gold in the 4x5km, this time with Nina Gavriluk replacing Smetanina.
Buoyed by her unprecedented medal haul at the Worlds in Trondheim, Välbe travelled to Japan with high hopes of individual success at the 1998 Winter Games, but could only manage a best of fifth place in the 30km. However, there was another golden lining to the cloud, as the Russian 4x5km team claimed the relay title for the third Games running, ahead of Norway and Italy.
Turin 2006... and Sochi 2014
After retiring from competition, Välbe became a coach, and went on to take charge of the Russian Olympic team that won seven medals at Turin 2006. In 2010, she was appointed President of the Russian Cross-Country Ski Association, and then at the end of 2012 resumed her duties as manager of the national team, overseeing its preparations for Sochi 2014.