Justyna Kowalczyk, Poland’s cross-country trailblazer
After becoming the first ever Polish Olympic cross-country ski champion by winning the 30km classical at Vancouver 2010, Justyna Kowalczyk has continued to shine over the past four years, and will be a serious contender in all the individual cross-country events in Sochi.
On 27 February 2010, the penultimate day of competition at the Vancouver Games, Polish cross-country skier Justyna Kowalczyk and Marit Björgen of Norway pulled away from the pack with 8km to go in the 30km classical event. The two then produced a dramatic finale that delighted an appreciative crowd at Whistler Olympic Park.
Björgen then led for much of their duel, but Kowalczyk, who had finished second in the individual sprint and third in the 15km individual pursuit, made her move in the closing stages of their 91-minute race, edging ahead and then holding off a determined sprint finish from her Norwegian rival to claim Poland’s first ever Olympic cross-country gold by three tenths of a second. The Limanowa native’s margin of victory was the closest in Olympic history over that distance.
A Pole apart
Ever since her international career took off during season 2008-2009, Kowalczyk has continued to set new benchmarks for Polish sport. Her four Olympic medals (including a bronze acquired during the 30km event at Turin 2006), represent the sum total won by Polish cross-country skiers at the Games. She is also the only female athlete from her country to have secured a FIS World Cup win, a feat she had achieved no fewer than 28 times as of 15 December 2013. Those successes have contributed to four triumphs in the overall standings (in 2008-2009, 2009-2010, 2010-2011 and 2012-2013) and four small crystal globes.
In addition, Kowalczyk is the only cross-country specialist in the world to have landed four consecutive FIS Tour de Ski titles (2010 to 2013), and she boasts seven World Championship medals, including two golds earned in Liberec (CZE) in 2009 in the 30km and 2 x 7.5km pursuit events.
Named Polish Sports Personality of the Year in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, Kowalczyk is unique in being able to celebrate her birthday twice; her actual birthdate was 19 January 1983, but thanks to an error her birthday was registered as 23 January, and still features on all of her personal documentation to this day.
As Sochi 2014 draws ever closer, the 31-year-old is in determined mood. “The Olympic Games are only held once every four years. When you’re at the starting line, you realise that you need to give your very best, whether you’re taking part in a 10km classical or a team sprint. You’re representing your country and you need to be at the peak of your powers. I’m well prepared. I’m ready to compete strongly at every Olympic discipline, be it in a sprint or over a longer distance,” she confirms confidently.