PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The first silver medalist of the 2018 Winter Olympics hugged the first gold medalist with a heartfelt gusto. The first bronze medalist expressed pleasant surprise. The gold medalist felt happy for the fourth-place finisher who is, after all, just 20. In came the fifth-place finisher, the Minnesotan who crossed the line and sprawled to the cold, hard ground with both cramps and a bolstered sense of hope. That silver medalist had made Olympic history, not that she mulled that.
All told, a fine delirium swirled around the finish line at the Alpensia Cross Country Center on a cold Korean Saturday afternoon.
The PyeongChang Olympics had begun handing out medals.
For the women’s 15-kilometer cross-country skiathlon, with its first half in the classical style and its second half in the freestyle and its usual inhumane upslopes for both styles, Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, 30, fulfilled her wish to upgrade from the silver medal she got in Sochi in 2014. Finland’s 27-year-old Krista Parmakoksi got bronze and said, “Now I make it.” That fifth-place finisher, the effusive Jessie Diggins from a country [United States] yet to win an Olympic women’s cross-country medal, hit the ground 4.6 seconds from a medal and said, “Being seconds out of a medal is so exciting because I know it’s possible. I have the belief. I have the confidence.”
Yet this was also medal No. 1 in another role, that of mother, one she has held down for two years and change.
While she seemed unmoved with that former distinction about the 11 medals and whatnot, saying she’d just see “how many medals I have” once she gets home, the latter did matter.
“Things are different after I’ve been a mom,” she said. “Things are more important to me, to be a good mom and then to do a good race. So to still be there and be fighting for medals is, I’m really happy with that.”
Asked if silver suited her as she tried to become the first cross-country skier to win three straight golds in an individual event, she said, “Yeah, I’m really happy.”
Asked if she felt disappointed, she said, “No, I’m not disappointed.”
And as an Olympics emphasizing friendship got underway, she emphasized friendship, for a fresh gold medalist with whom Bjoergen has trained.
“For me Charlotte is a very good friend for me also, so I’m really happy for her today,” Bjoergen said. “I feel like she’s been the strongest this year. I’m happy that she was taking the gold today.”
The whole thing pushed Kalla to a sixth Olympic medal (three of them gold) and up near the top of the career rankings for her country, such that when somebody asked about comparisons to Swedish skiers such as Gunde Svan, she said, “It’s hard to believe because they are legends. It’s crazy just to be named in the same sentence as them . . . No, it’s really hard to understand.”
The race went most of its way without anyone asserting herself in front, a factor Bjoergen explained by saying, “It was very windy, actually, and it’s hard to be going in front and push. It’s much easier to be behind.”
She actually led during the mid-race exchange of skis and poles. Two-thirds of the way through the closing, freestyle half, Kalla created her gap, which then grew considerable.
“Yes, there were thoughts about maybe, ‘What are the others doing?’ But I just tried to focus . . .” She also tried to remember all the pain of all the days of summer and fall and the run-up. “I tried to follow her,” Bjoergen said, “and it was too many girls and I didn’t get her back like I wanted. I tried and I pushed hard to attack her but she was too strong, so . . .”
Farther behind, Diggins, who placed eighth in this race at Sochi, had constructed some enduring encouragement. She’s the enthusiastic blogger who once wrote, “We’ve never had a women’s cross-country medal at the Olympics. You know that, I know that. Your second cousin-once-removed knows that.” Now she crossed and crumpled and said, exhilarated, “I gave it everything I had.”
Kalla already had crossed, then Bjoergen, with her son and his father back home in Norway, had crossed and hugged Kalla, who turned around, looked back and saw her young countrywoman,fourth-place finisher Ebba Andersson. The Olympics were underway, and everyone seemed so happy, and, Kalla said of Andersson, “It was so cool to cross the finish line and look.”
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