Skiathlon gives Vancouver Games star Marit Bjoergen 1st chance at Olympic gold in Sochi
Norway's Marit Bjoergen trains on the cross country slope prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
Mattias Karen, The Associated Press
Published Friday, February 7, 2014 8:22AM EST
SOCH, Russia -- Marit Bjoergen left Vancouver four years ago as the most successful athlete of the 2010 Winter Olympics, with three gold medals, one silver medal and a bronze.
Anything less in Sochi for the Norwegian cross-country skier would probably be seen as a disappointment back home, where she is almost expected to win every race -- starting with the women's 15-kilometre skiathlon on Saturday.
Bjoergen, though, is setting her goals a bit lower this time. One gold, she said, will be enough.
"I know how difficult it can be," Bjoergen said. "There are a lot of other strong girls and I have to be in good shape, with good skis and have a good day. I'm happy to get one Olympic gold medal."
Perhaps that's just a way of trying to keep the hopes of Norwegian fans in check. There's already talk about whether Bjoergen can get five golds in Sochi, and match her countryman Bjoern Daehlie's Winter Olympic record of eight for her career. Or at least get to six, like biathlon great Ole Einar Bjoerndalen. But that's taking things a bit too fast for Bjoergen.
"I'm here to do my best," the 33-year-old Bjoergen said. "I'm not thinking about Daehlie or Bjoerndalen. This might by my last Olympics."
In the opening skiathlon, her main competition will likely come from her teammates. At last year's world championships Norway swept the podium in the event, which sees skiers using the classical style for the first half before switching to freestyle. Therese Johaug, Heidi Weng and Kristin Stoermer Steira are all legitimate medal contenders this time as well.
Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, meanwhile, is struggling with a foot injury and may not be at her best. Kowalczyk has been Bjoergen's biggest rival over the last five years but posted a photo of her swollen and bruised left foot on Facebook a week ago after hurting it in training.
Kowalczyk hasn't publicly commented on her foot injury, and told Polish media she's even putting off a medical exam because she doesn't want to know how bad the injury is.
"I have decided I will compete and fight. It will not stop hurting from medical tests alone," she said. "Knowing what's wrong could only undermine me. I don't need that."
Bjoergen has no such problems, and is coming off two World Cup victories last weekend in a freestyle sprint and classical-style 10K race that sent a clear message that she can contend in every discipline. That means not even Bjoergen can say which race gives her the best chance for a gold.
"It's hard to say because I'm the favourite at every distance," she said.
Coming from Bjoergen, that's not boasting -- just a simple statement of fact. And after Saturday's race, she may well have to set a more ambitious goal for herself.