Finland edges Norway in women’s Nordic ski relay
LAKE PLACID — Finland was a favorite to win the cross-country skiing women’s 3 x 5-kilometer relay at the World University Games. Of the three on the team — Tiia Olkkonen, Vilja Kauranen, and Hilla Niemela — two had won medals earlier in the games. But with several inches of fresh snow on the course, it was not an easy victory for Finns; after a long, hard week of racing, they “were not the freshest ones anymore,” noted Olkkonen.
Still, Niemela was able to hold off Norway’s Karianne Olsvik Dengerud, thrusting her ski across the finish line first, 0.7 seconds ahead of Dengerud.
“I didn’t think about anything but I have to be the first to the finish line; it’s my job,” said Niemela.
“Hilla is my best friend, and we train together,” added Kauranen. “I trusted her, and it was so good to see her come in first.”
In the final leg of the 3 x 5km relay, Niemela passed first Norway, then Japan to take the lead in the race. Norway’s Dengerud kept pace with Niemela and Kazakhstan’s Xeniya Shalygina gained ground on Japan’s Rin Sobue, who started the final leg in first. Sobue won a gold medal in the team sprint on the first day of Lake Placid 2023 FISU Games competition a week ago.
On the final climb, Niemela surged, and only Dengerud could go with her. Niemela and Dengerud battled up the finish stretch, with the Finnish skier crossing the line for the win in 43 minutes, 49.8 seconds and Dengerud clocking 43 minutes, 50.3 seconds, giving Norway the silver.
“I was honestly pretty sure I was going to overtake her,” said Dengerud. “But then it was really hard to pass anywhere in the downhill, with the really heavy snow, and I had a terrible last turn, and then it was hard to get the pace back up.
“But I am super happy with the team effort. It’s like a gold for us today and we are just super happy with the race.”
Astrid Slav started the relay for the Norwegians and tagged Selma Anderson, who then tagged Dengerud, who won a bronze medal in the cross-country mixed team sprint earlier in the Games.
In a surprise move, Japan–which has been dominant in Nordic competition at the Lake Placid 2023 FISU Games–did not make the podium. Instead, Shalygina pulled Kazakhstan from sixth place into podium contention on the final lap of the relay, winning bronze for her team in 42 minutes, 33.2 seconds. Sobue for Japan crossed the line in fourth place.
This is Kazakhstan’s first medal at the Lake Placid 2023 FISU World University Games. Aisha Rakisheva and Nadezhda Stepashkina skied the first two legs of the relay. Shalygina, 24, finished fourth in both the women’s individual and pursuit races. She is a 2022 Olympian, three-time national champion for Kazakstan, and competed at the 2022/2023 Tour de Ski earlier this month. She studies at the Kazakh Academy of Sport and Tourism in Almaty.
The entire Norwegian women’s relay team studies at American universities: Astrid Stav at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, Delma Anderson at Denver University, and Dengerud at Utah.
Cross-country races at Lake Placid 2023 conclude on Sunday at Mount Van Hoevenberg with the women’s and men’s 15k/30k mass starts in the freestyle technique.