ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Marit Bjoergen fulfilled expectations by earning her fourth Olympic gold medal with victory in the skiathlon event on a bittersweet Saturday for Norway at the Sochi Winter Games.
Bjoergen, dubbed the ‘Iron Lady,’ tucked herself into the leading pack for most of the race, which combines 7.5km in classic style and 7.5km in freestyle, until outsprinting Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla in the race to the finish.
Another Norwegian, Heidi Weng, took third place just ahead of World Cup leader and compatriot Therese Johaug, who paid the price of working tirelessly at the front of the pack in the second part of the race.
All four of the Norwegian skiers in the race were wearing black armbands after receiving the news that the brother of cross-country team mate Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen had died on Friday, the day of the opening ceremony.
“My fantastic girls ... You are my strength in thick and thin,” Tweeted Jacobsen during the race. “Thanks for the commemorating armbands. Forever grateful, whether there will be medals or not.”
Television pictures later showed the Norwegian skiers hugging together, with a crying Bjoergen resting Johaug’s head on her shoulder.
Bjoergen came home in a time of 38:33.6, 1.8 seconds ahead of Kalla.
“One gold was my goal, so now I can relax a little bit. I can enjoy the rest of the Games,” Bjoergen, who still has five events to take part in, told reporters.
”I knew Charlotte would be strong in the sprint and she’s good at the climbs but I thought that if I could follow her, I would have a chance.
“I knew it would be a sprint. I did my best for the last 100 metres and I was sprinting very hard at the end.”
There could more titles to come but Bjoergen was reluctant to discuss a medals target.
“I haven’t thought about the number of medals because I‘m still competing,” she told a news conference. “But I really want to do the six races. I am in good shape and anything is possible if I can keep that form.”
Norway women’s coach Egil Kristiansen, told TV2: “Marit seemed to be in complete control. And with third and fourth place too, it’s a great day.”
Bjoergen’s fourth gold medal takes her past Sonja Henie as the most successful female Olympian from Norway.
Kalla was the fastest at the 7.5km mark, where the field changed skis, but things did not go as smoothly for Pole Justyna Kowalczyk, who fell just before the stop and lost time she could not recover.
Johaug then pulled the leading pack of five into the final 3.75-km lap as they charged down a descent at over 70kph.
Kalla attacked with just under a kilometre left, taking Bjoergen in her slipstream and the Norwegian, who has now eight Olympic medals to her name, put in the decisive attack on the sprint to the line.
Second place seemed to satisfy Kalla, though.
“This is my dream,” she said.
“It means a lot to me to be on the podium for the first time. I could not imagine this before the race.”
Additional reporting by Terje Solsvik and Dmitry Rogovitskyi; Editing by Peter Rutherford