The Soviet Union had dominated the international women’s cross country scene since the inclusion of women’s events on the FIS World Championship programme in Falun (SWE) in 1954.
Lyubov Baranova had won the 10km title (competing under her maiden name of Kozyreva) at those championships before going on to add an Olympic gold at Cortina d’Ampezzo 1956 ahead of Radia Yeroshina. In 1958, in Lahti (FIN), a third Soviet athlete, Alevtina Kolchina had taken the world title. The formidable trio had also teamed up to win the world relay title in 1954 and 1958, not to mention Olympic silver behind Finland in 1956. It was no surprise, then, that they all made the USSR team for Squaw Valley.
However, it was a fourth Soviet athlete who would soon be capturing the headlines. Born in the region of Ryazan, the 21-year-old Mariya Gusakova was selected to join her more feted compatriots in California, despite having yet to win a major title.
Gusakova’s career would nevertheless take a dramatic turn in the 10km race at McKinney Creek Stadium on 20 February 1960, a race that saw the Soviet quartet occupy the first four places at the halfway stage, with Baranova seemingly on course for gold, leading by 15 seconds from Kolchina, with Gusakova and Yeroshina a further eight and 21 seconds back respectively.
Gusakova was in prime form, however, and produced a devastating burst of speed in the closing stages, crossing the line in a time of 39:46.6, fully 18 seconds clear of Baranova. The only competitor to complete the course in under 40 minutes, the youngster had outskied the defending champion by 41 seconds in the second half of the race.
Yeroshina completed the podium, giving the USSR an unprecedented clean sweep. Just for good measure, Kolchina came in fourth.
Gusakova secured another medal when she teamed up with Yeroshina and Baranova to land silver behind Sweden in the 3x5km relay, while her husband Nikolay Gusakov also made it onto the podium in Squaw Valley, winning bronze in the Nordic combined.
At the 1962 FIS World Championships in Zakopane (POL), Gusakova won a medal of each colour: silver in the 10km, bronze in the 5km and gold in the 3x5km with Baranova and Kolchina. In the space of just four years the Soviet skier won medals in every event on the Winter Games and world championship programme. She completed her Olympic collection at Innsbruck 1964, pocketing a bronze in the 10km.