Poland’s golden girl
Thanks to a phenomenal series of triumphs, Justyna Kowalczyk has put Polish cross-country skiing well and truly on the map.
Child of Capricorn
Justyna Kowalczyk’s story begins with an administrative error on her birth certificate. Though she was born on 19 January 1983 in Limanowa, southern Poland, a registrar incorrectly recorded the date as the 23rd, a mistake that figures to this day on her passport. The champion skier nevertheless regards herself as a child of Capricorn, explaining that she owes her stubbornness to the fact that she was born under the tenth sign of the zodiac.
On the medal trail
In her childhood years Kowalczyk was a keen athlete and played basketball and handball to a high standard. She took up cross country skiing at the age of 10 and competed in her first FIS World Cup race at Cogne (ITA) in December 2001, and her first world championships in Val di Fiemme (ITA) in February 2003. Her career took off at Turin 2006, when she won Olympic bronze in the 30km freestyle behind Russia’s Julia Tchepalova and gold medal winner Katerina Neumanova of Czech Republic. It was Poland’s first ever Olympic medal in cross country skiing.
Two Games, two golds
Four years later in Vancouver, Kowalczyk picked up a silver in the individual sprint and bronze in the 15km pursuit before lifting her first Olympic title in the 30km classical, the Pole just getting the better of Norway’s Marit Bjørgen in a breathtaking sprint finish. Her winning margin of 0.3 seconds was the narrowest in the history of the event. Going into Sochi 2014, Kowalczyk was suffering with a triple hairline fracture in her foot, though it did not stop her from dominating the 10km classical from start to finish and claiming the second Olympic gold of her career and her fifth medal overall.
Such feats mean that Kowalczyk has rewritten her country’s sporting history. Not only is she the only Polish cross-country skier to have medalled at the Olympic Winter Games, she is also the only one to have won a FIS World Cup race (as of March 2014 she had won 30) or to have lifted an FIS World Cup title. Between 2009 and 2013 she picked up four large crystal globes, to go with four small ones.
She is also the only female cross country skier in the world to have won the FIS Tour de Ski on four occasions, making the title her own between 2010 and 2013. In addition she has amassed a total of six world championship medals, including two golds won in the 15km pursuit and the 30km in Liberec in 2009. And just for good measure she was also voted Polish Sportswoman of the Year four times in a row between 2009 and 2012.