ZHANGJIAKOU, China (Reuters) -Norway’s Therese Johaug powered to victory in the final race of her Olympic career, winning the women’s 30km freestyle mass start in a display of enormous strength and discipline and netting her third individual gold of the Beijing Games.
American Jessie Diggins came in second 1:43.3 behind Johaug to collect the silver medal, collapsing after the finish line, with Kerttu Niskanen of Finland making a late burst to take the bronze.
“It’s beautiful, I’m coming here to Beijing with no individual gold medal and now I have three and can end my Olympic career with this. It’s so beautiful,” Johaug told Reuters.
The gold medal was Norway’s 16th of the Beijing Games and a record for a single country at a Winter Olympics.
The race was moved forward by three-and-a-half hours as once again high winds whipped through the mountains in Zhangjiakou at speeds of up to 15 km per hour over the four 7.5km laps, but the Norwegian was undeterred.
Johaug wasted no time getting out in front, taking control after the first 2km and stretching the field out with Sweden’s Ebba Andersson shadowing her in a breakaway group of seven racers that was quickly reduced to four.
France’s Delphine Claudel battled gamely to hang on to the leaders but they were soon whittled down to a trio, and Johaug took her chance just before a third of the race had elapsed.
As Andersson briefly paused for a drink around the 9km mark, Johaug spotted her opportunity and made another break, dropping the Swede and leaving the leader with only Diggins on her tail, but the American sprint specialist could not reel her in.
Johaug’s lead over Diggins was soon up to 27 seconds and she pressed on relentlessly, occasionally looking behind her but only seeing the snow being whipped across the course by the brisk, freezing wind.
By then, World Cup leader Natalya Nepryaeva representing the Russian Olympic Committee had long since departed, gliding off the course and giving up before the end of the first lap.
Around a minute behind Johaug and another minute ahead of Andersson in third, Diggins ploughed a lonely furrow in second spot but could not close the gap as time began to run out and the wind increased in strength.
In the end it was all too easy as Johaug, who missed the 2018 Olympics due to a doping suspension, cruised across the line waving a Norwegian flag with the rest of the field nowhere to be seen.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Jacqueline Wong)