Norwegian athletes enjoyed a brilliant showing in the women’s cross country events at the Laura Cross Country Ski and Biathlon Centre, not least Marit Bjørgen, who added three golds, taking her overall Olympic medal tally to 10, confirming her as the most successful female Winter Olympian of all time.
8 February 2014: Different name, same result as Bjørgen wins gold in women’s skiathlon
Under stunning blue skies at the Laura Cross Country Ski & Biathlon Centre, the athlete known variously as “Gull-Marit” (“Golden Marit”) and “the Iron Lady” put in a storming performance to finish ahead of Charlotte Kalla (SWE). Heidi Weng (NOR) took the bronze to complete an all-Scandinavian podium.
The skiathlon – also known as the 15km pursuit and the combined 7.5 + 7.5km mass start – is a combination of 7.5 km classic style immediately followed by 7.5 km freestyle skating, therefore requires competitors to display a full repertoire of technique, speed and stamina.
Bjørgen, 33, arrived in Sochi having recently extended her record tally of World Cup wins to 64. And in Sochi, wearing the No 2 bib, the 12-time world champion quickly set the standard. First at the 3.75km mark (9:42.0), and again at 5.4km (13:57.6) she was still leading the way going into the halfway mark and the changeover.
Despite a sluggish equipment change, in which she was only 26th fastest, the Norwegian soon made up for it in the freestyle, putting in a burst of pace after 11km to see off a robust challenge from Kalla.
After crossing the finish line in first place Bjørgen collapsed in a mixture of joy and exhaustion.
11 February 2014: Falla wins sprint to clock century of cross-country medals for Norway
The Norwegians now occupy a special place in the Olympic pantheon alongside Austria, whose athletes have won 107 medals across the Alpine skiing events.
Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg took silver to further increase the Norwegian tally to 101.
“It's just unbelievable. I can't believe what I just did. I've been dreaming of this since I was three years old,” said an exultant Falla.
A total of 67 cross-country skiers had started the qualification round, with the field then whittled down to 30 athletes, who contested five quarter finals.
The fastest two from each quarter final were joined by two “lucky losers” in the semis, with six from 12 making it through to the afternoon’s final.
23-year-old Falla produced a brilliant display of technical prowess mixed with bold tactics on the steep 1.3km course, to emerge a worthy winner.
13 February 2014: Kowalczyk takes pole position in women’s 10km classic
The Pole more than justified her status as favourite in the gruelling time trial event, finishing in 28 minutes 17.8 seconds, a colossal 18.4 seconds ahead of her nearest rival Charlotte Kalla (SWE) who took silver. Therese Johaug (NOR) took the bronze in 28 minutes 46.1 seconds.
“It's taken a lot of years of hard work. This is the gold number four in the history in Poland. So I think this is something big," said Kowalczyk, who shrugged off an ankle injury to find her best form.
The tough undulating course was made for Kowalczyk, who is famed for her astonishing stamina and mental strength.
She had not been at her best in the skiathlon and had dropped out of the sprints in order to concentrate on the 10km classic, which is widely regarded as her top event.
It helped a lot. It was good to focus on one race,Justyna Kowalczyk Poland
Kowalczyk's great rival, Marit Bjørgen of Norway, had an off day by her own high standards, finishing in fifth place and over half a minute behind the Pole.
15 February 2014: Sweden’s women clinch last-gasp gold in 4x5km relay thriller
That sparked scenes of wild celebration at the finish, as an exhausted Kalla was jumped on by her jubilant team-mates.
Sweden finished on 53 minutes 2.7 seconds, with Finland taking silver at 0.5 seconds. The German quartet took bronze on 53 minutes 3.6 seconds.
It was Kalla’s third medal of Sochi 2014 following silvers in the skiathlon and 10km classic - meaning that by Day 7 she had won more than any other athlete.
“Emma stayed in front of the whole group and Anna, she's the real fighter. I was so motivated when I got out on my lap,” she said.
I cannot believe we're Olympic champions.Charlotte Kalla Sweden
Haag however had no doubts about the debt owed by the team to its leader: “When we were waiting for Charlotte in the finish area I could barely believe it. It was crazy,” she said. “Charlotte was skiing like a god.”
Kalla now has a total of five Winter Games medals. Only one Swedish athlete has bettered that total- Alpine skier Anja Paerson who won six.
Favourites Norway could finish only fifth, 53.6 seconds off the pace.
19 February 2014: Bjørgen leads Norway to team sprint title
Marit Bjørgen spearheaded Norway to victory in the women's team sprint race to win the fifth Olympic gold of her career.
Bjørgen and her team-mate Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg finished in 16 minutes 4.05 seconds, with Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen and Kerttu Niskanen 9.09 seconds behind for silver. Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter and Stina Nilsson took bronze in 16 minutes 23.82 seconds.
“We have the strongest team ever. Maybe this is my last Olympic medal,” said 33-year old Bjørgen.
“We had some problems but they [the waxing technicians] worked very hard. I'm proud of the whole Norwegian team.”
22 February 2014: Bjørgen tops Norwegian podium and all-time women’s medal rankings
Bjørgen claimed her third gold of Sochi 2014 in the women’s 30km mass start, leading home a Norwegian clean sweep of the podium places and taking her place in the Olympic pantheon the most successful female Winter Games athlete of all time.
The 33-year-old crossed the line in 1 hour 11 minutes 5.2 seconds, with Therese Johaug finishing 2.6 seconds later to claim silver.
Their compatriot Kristin Størmer Steira came in third, a further 21.0 seconds for bronze to complete a Norwegian 1-2-3.
The wily Bjørgen timed her race to perfection, coming from behind to overtake Johaug on the final climb and take her Sochi gold tally to three, following earlier wins in the skiathlon and team sprint.
“It's incredible,” she said at the finish. “We're all Norwegian and we're all on the podium. This has been a goal for me for a long time.
The Norwegian trio had dominated from early, breaking free from the pack at the 10km mark.
They then raced in compact formation, taking it in turns to lead, with each racer dropping back into the slipstream, all three conserved their energy for the final push.
In the last few kilometres FIS World Cup leader Johaug made a break. Bjørgen stayed on her shoulder, as Steiria faded and fell back.
It was now a two-woman race, and the final ascent proved decisive, as Bjørgen kicked on, overtaking Johaug, who could not muster a meaningful response.
“It means a lot to the team,” said Johaug. “We have come back from the relay. We knew we were stronger than that. We had very good skis, the waxing team did a great job.”
“We weren't that good in the relay so we showed today that we are the best,” added Bjørgen, who now has every right to be regarded as the best on an individual basis too.
After completing her programme at Sochi 2014,“Gull-Marit” (“Golden Marit”) had taken her total to six Olympic golds – putting her on a par with speed skater Lidiya Skoblikova (URS) and fellow cross-country skier Lyubov Yegorova (URS).