ZHANGJIAKOU, China (Reuters) – The tears flowed despite the bitter cold after Therese Johaug cruised across the finish line in the skiathlon to claim the one prize she wanted most of all but had never achieved — an individual Olympic gold medal.
The 33-year-old Norwegian had enjoyed great success in a career stretching back to 2006 but her modest Olympic achievements pale into insignificance when compared with her countrywoman Marit Bjoergen, the most successful Winter Olympian of all time.
Johaug had just one Olympic gold medal, won as part of the Norwegian relay team at the 2010 Vancouver Games, and 14 world championship wins, but the last piece of the puzzle did not fall into place until Saturday.
“This means an incredible amount, this is what I have been training for many, many years. It’s been a dream since I was a little girl,” an emotional Johaug told reporters.
“Today I could cross the finish line and know that I am an Olympic champion. It is huge.”
Her 2014 Olympics in Sochi yielded a silver and bronze but no gold medals, and her participation in Pyeongchang was derailed when she tested positive for a banned substance, incurring a ban that saw her miss the 2018 Games.
Johaug has recently lived with the burden of her own expectations, and the possibility that she might be infected with the coronavirus.
“We had Covid-19 in our team. I was not sure I could go here, because I was afraid I would get sick also,” she told reporters.
“But we came here on Wednesday evening, and I knew that I had to look forward.”
Looking forward on Saturday after the change of skis, all she could see was the course in front of her and the finish line. She raced away from the halfway point and the competition was decided long before she made it home.
“I would not have managed this without all the support around me. I have not given priority to those around me in recent years to achieve this goal. I’ve been selfish. That makes this extra huge,” Johaug said.
That kind of single-mindedness was the hallmark of Bjoergen’s stellar Olympic career, which brought her 15 medals, eight of them golds.
With the cross-country racing only beginning at the Beijing Games, Johaug could add to her new own gold collection in the coming weeks.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor)