She retired after becoming the most decorated winter Olympian ever at PyeongChang 2018, but there was a time when cross-country skier Marit Bjoergen had to face the agony of repeated failure on the world’s biggest sporting stage. Looking back, the Norwegian is grateful for the tough times.
It is hard to imagine, but twice Marit Bjoergen left an Olympic Games without a single gold medal to her name. At Salt Lake City in 2002 she was an excited 21-year-old, delighted to grab silver in the women’s 4x5km relay. Four years later, Bjoergen anticipated stamping her authority on proceedings to start a gold rush, as did the watching world.
The fact it did not transpire left the Norwegian mired in self-doubt. But the pain precipitated a change in approach which ultimately resulted in her winning more Olympic Winter medals than anyone else in history.
“It was a very tough Olympics, I don’t have many good memories, but I think it is the reason why I was able to have such a career,” Bjoergen reflected, 14 years after she went home from Turin 2006 with a solitary silver medal in the 10km.
“I learned a lot from it. I had some trouble, but then I found the right training for me and my body responded to it. I knew I had it in me but I had to change a lot of things in my training to do it and I had to find the good feelings.”
Once she found the right recipe that was it.
“I learned it’s very important to be happy,” said Bjoergen, who won her eighth gold medal at the age of 37 in the final women’s individual race at PyeongChang 2018. “You have to do so much hard work and you are travelling a lot, so you need to feel good, to have a good team around you and good teammates.”
By the time she reached the Vancouver 2010 Games, Bjoergen was a four-time world champion and two-time overall International Ski Federation (FIS) World Cup winner. But still she had to prove she could do it on the biggest stage of all.
“Of course it was very special for me because of those years where the [Olympic] results were not very good,” Bjoergen said of her maiden Olympic triumph, secured in the 2010 women’s sprint.
Once Bjoergen had worked out how to open the tap, there was no stopping her. Golds followed in the 15km skiathlon and the 4x5km women’s relay. She also claimed silver in the 30km and bronze in the 10km.
Happy and successful, Bjoergen grew ever stronger. Her relationship with double Olympic Nordic combined champion Fred Borre Lundberg, with whom she had her first child in 2015, only added fuel to the fire.
“When I felt like I was finished he always stood up for me and gave me the motivation to do the hard work,” Bjoergen explained. “It meant a lot. He was a big reason why I carried on for so long and my son as well.”
By the Sochi 2014 Games she was unstoppable. First she defended her 15km skiathlon title before partnering compatriot Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg to gold in the women’s team sprint and taking the prestigious 30km classic title for the first time.
The numbers continued to pile up both during and between Olympic Games. Incredibly, the 39-year-old [NB re. publication date: she turns 40 on 21 March 2020] even won medals in every event she entered at PyeongChang 2018 before finally calling time on competition. A final career tally of eight Olympic golds, four silvers and three bronzes, 18 World Championship titles and a quite staggering 114 World Cup wins from 303 starts tells its own story.
Not many people, even the greatest of champions, get to bow out on their own terms while still at the very top. But Bjoergen did.
“I knew it was the last big race for me,” Bjoergen said of the 30km classic at PyeongChang 2018, which she won by a margin of 109 seconds. “I had one goal and it was taking one [individual] gold and I knew the 30km was my favourite event. Everything was good that day, the shape and the skis, everything.
“It was very special to end my career like that. And I had left my child at home and had been away from him for many weeks and I knew it was the last race and then I could go home and take care of him.”
Two years on from that golden moment, nothing, it seems, has dimmed the lustre of this champion’s passion.
“I love my life now,” Bjoergen said. “I have a more normal life now. Of course I am not thinking, ‘Oh, I am the most successful winter Olympian’ all the time. I have a family, I focus on that. Of course everyone knows me, but I think the new generation is coming up so they are finding new models to look up to. I still have a big name in Norway for sure, but life is still the same.
“I am not focusing so much on what I have done, but it’s still a good feeling to have it [the record as the most decorated winter Olympian ever] and see how long I can keep it.
“It is special. If I can keep hold of it, it means a lot to me. We will see.”