Cross-country skiing: Marit Bjoergen looks to continue dominance

Associated Press

Marit Bjoergen is heading to the Winter Games in South Korea looking for a three-peat of her three-peat.

Bjoergen, the most successful women’s cross-country skier in history, has won three gold medals in each of the past two Winter Games and will be looking to make it three in a row when the Pyeongchang Olympics begin Saturday.

Bjoergen has won 10 medals overall, tied with Raisa Smetanina and Stefania Belmondo as the most decorated female Winter Olympian ever.

Behind Bjoergen, Norway won 11 medals overall in cross-country at the Sochi Games in 2014 — including five gold — to tie the country’s record. The Norwegian team once again looks like the team to beat despite losing one of its top athletes to a doping ban.

“They are the traditional powerhouse in our sport,” said Jeff Ellis with the International Ski Federation. “They know how to get ready on time for the Olympics, which is a big deal. They are one of those nations.”

However, former Olympic champion Therese Johaug is barred from racing until mid-April after a doping ban. The 29-year-old star from Norway tested positive for an anabolic agent listed in the contents of a treatment for sunburn, and a Court of Arbitration for Sport panel announced last August an 18-month ban was “appropriate.”

The Americans don’t have a great history with cross-country skiing — they have only won one Olympic medal in the sport’s history — but Jessie Diggins might be the country’s best hope. The fun-loving Diggins is the most decorated U.S. cross-country skier, male or female, in world championship history. She is third in the world in cross-country standings, according to the International Ski Federation.

MEDAL FAVORITES: Dario Cologna from Switzerland is considered one of the favorites to bring home some hardware after winning gold medals in the 15-kilometer classic and the 30-kilometer skiathlon in Sochi four years ago. The 31-year-old Cologna, known as “Super Dario,” passed Sweden’s Marcus Hellner on the final climb and went on to win a tightly contested 30-kilometer skiathlon. Cologna remains at the top of his game, winning his fourth Tour de Ski Championship to start the new year. On the women’s side, Bjoergen could be challenged for gold by teammates Heidi Weng and Ingvild Flugstad and Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla in the 15-kilometer skiathlon.

BEST RIVALRY: Expect some fireworks in the women’s 4x5 kilometer relay following an edge-of-your-seat finish in 2014 in which Charlotte Kalla fought back from 25 seconds down on the final leg to win the gold medal for the Swedish team. Surely, Finnish and German skiers haven’t forgotten their epic meltdown on the final leg and will be looking for a bit of revenge. Kalla has spent most of her career in Bjoergen’s shadow, but could be ready for a breakout Olympics.

RISING STARS: Norway’s Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo is one of the rising stars of men’s cross-country skiing. Just 21, he won seven of nine World Cup races before Christmas and is expected to be a threat in Pyeongchang. For the women, Kalla was atop the World Cup leaderboard before Christmas before taking time off — as many of the top Olympians do — to begin focusing on South Korea. Also, keep a close eye on Weng, who recently won her second straight Tour de Ski title on Alpe Cermis and figures to be a factor.

DON’T MISS: Norway’s Ola Vigen Hattestadand won gold in Sochi in the sprint free event and is capable of bettering his time in Pyeongchang. For the women, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk, who won the 10-kilometer classic in Sochi, could be a factor. Former Tour de Ski champion Sergey Ustiugov from Russia is expected to medal at Pyeongchang, too.

OLYMPIAN EFFORT: Pita Taufatofua, the shirtless, oiled-up flag-bearing taekwondo competitor from Tonga who turned heads at the Summer Games in Rio two years ago, is now trying his hand at being a cross-country skier. He made the team in the last race before the Olympic qualifying period ended, though it’s unlikely he’ll be shirtless and oiled up in sub-freezing temperatures at the Winter Games.

Americans to watch

Jessie Diggins: The Afton, Minn., native captured two medals — a silver in the sprint and a bronze in the team sprint — at the 2017 world championships. Diggins, 26, will compete in her second Olympics after finishing as high as eighth (in the 7.5/7.5K skiathlon) in Sochi.

Kikkan Randall: The Salt Lake City native and five-time Olympian is Team USA’s most-decorated star, becoming the first American woman in nearly 30 years to win a World Cup title in 2012. Randall, 35, rejoined the World Cup tour in 2017 after taking off the 2016 season for the birth of her son, Breck. She won her third world championship medal, a bronze, in the sprint.

Simi Hamilton: The Aspen, Colo., native is competing in his third Olympics. Hamilton, 30, who combined with teammate Erik Bjornsen to finish sixth in the classic team sprint in Sochi, earned two sprint podiums in 2016 and one in 2017.

Erik Bjornsen: Along with his sixth-place finish in the team sprint in Sochi, the two-time Olympian and Winthrop, Wash., native, 26, placed fifth in the team sprint classic at the 2017 world championships. Bjornsen’s sister Sadie, 28, a fellow Olympian, won her first world championship medal in 2017.

Andy Newell: A four-time Olympian and five-time world championship team member, the Bennington, Vt., native has three World Cup podium finishes and more than 40 top-10 finishes. Newell, 34, is ranked 34th in the sprint standings and has a career-best Olympic finish of ninth in the team sprint in 2010.

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