Johaug takes time out during spectacular comeback season

Therese Johaug misses the Tour de Ski after winning five out of five distance races since returning from a lengthy doping ban.

While Marit Bjørgen was breaking records at PyeongChang 2018, team-mate Therese Johaug was left wondering what might have been.

In 2016, Johaug was the dominant force in cross-country skiing.

But she tested positive for the anabolic steroid clostebol found in a lip balm, and was banned in October 2016 with an eventual 18-month suspension seeing her miss what would surely have been her career-defining Winter Olympics.

After missing two seasons, Johaug returned to competition last month.

And it's as if she's never been away.

Therese Johaug takes first place in the World Cup 10K classic pursuit in Lillehammer on December 2.

When the Norwegian stood at the start line at the national cross-country opener at Beitostølen on November 16th, it had been two and a half years since her last start.

Ahead of her comeback race, she was quoted in Dagbladet for saying: “I’m nervous. And excited. Obviously, I don’t know where I stand compared to my competitors.”

As it turned out, she had no need to worry.

The 30-year-old claimed victory on her return and her shout of "I did it!" echoed across the venue as she crossed the finish line.

And to prove it was no fluke, Johaug went on to take the 10K classic event at the World Cup opener in Ruka, Finland and gave herself an early Christmas gift in the land of Santa Claus.

“It was a really good race for me. I can’t believe I’m back here,” Johaug said after her win in Ruka which came 988 days after her previous World Cup appearance.

Two months into the World Cup season, she has proved that she is stronger than ever and stronger than the rest.

The three-time Olympic medallist has five wins in five distance races across Europe and is the current overall World Cup leader.

Balm and ban

In October 2016, the world of cross-country skiing was rocked by news of Johaug's test failure.

On September 16th, Johaug tested positive for the anabolic steroid clostebol which she explained was due to her recent use of the lip balm Trofodermin for her sore, sunburnt lips as seen below.

She claimed she was given the medication by team doctor Fredrik Bendiksen who failed to spot the presence of the forbidden steroid.

Bendiksen resigned immediately and the Norwegian Olympic Committee suspended her for 13 months, a ban which would expire before PyeongChang 2018.

But FIS (International Ski Federation) sought a longer sanction due to the fact that the athlete had missed a printed doping warning label.

The Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) found in favour of FIS, deciding that Johaug would serve an 18-month ban starting on October 18, 2016, meaning she would miss the Winter Olympics in February 2018.

Bjørgen legacy

When Johaug won her first overall World Cup in 2014, she crossed the line nearly 30 seconds ahead of Bjørgen in the World Cup Finals 10K freestyle pursuit.

That victory in Falun, Sweden sent out a clear signal that Norway had a ready-made successor for when Bjørgen announced her retirement.

That came this year after Bjørgen became the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time, winning a total of 15 medals at five Games.

At the age of 37, she won the final event in PyeongChang, the 30km mass start classic, for a record-equalling eighth gold medal to cap an extraordinary career.

For that reason, this season is in Norway called "Year One After Bjørgen".

But Johaug's incredible comeback has more than made up for her old team-mate's departure.

And with two World Cup overall titles to her name already, Johaug has plenty of time to overtake Bjørgen's tally of four overall crowns.

All alone... almost

During her absence from professional cross-country skiing, Johaug was banned from competition and from training with the Norwegian national team.

She spent a great deal of time training alone, and with her brother Karstein.

Lonely training does not seem to have affected her adversely at all.

To the contrary, she may even be stronger physically and mentally for her time in the wilderness.

And while sport can be all-consuming, Johaug appears to have a more balanced perspective on cross-country skiing and life.

For the first time in as long as she can remember, Johaug was able to enjoy a normal family Christmas round the table.

Johaug's career away from the slopes has also been successful, with her women's sportswear brand - named Johaug - enjoying increased sales.

Team-mate and rival Ingvild Flugstad Østberg said before the start of the season she had a feeling Johaug's absence might make her a more complete skier.

She may well have been proved right.

Johaug skips Tour de Ski

Johaug won the Tour de Ski in 2014 and 2016, but she was not among Norway's 10-strong team called up by coach Vidar Løfshus for this year’s event.

The reason is that February’s World Championships in Seefeld in Tirol, Austria is her main goal for this season.

"Therese feels like she needs a break to reach her top level ahead of the World Championships. I think - without her saying it - that it has been a special first half of the season which has cost her a great deal of energy.

"I think it is a smart decision to recharge the batteries," Vidar Løftshus on Johaug missing the Tour de Ski.

Before her ban, Johaug established herself as the Queen of Alpe Cermis, the final climb on which races are often won and lost.

She will return to action in Ottepää, Estonia on the weekend of January 19-20.

Sweden’s three-time Olympic gold medallist champion Charlotte Kalla and team-mate Ebba Andersson are also skipping the Tour de Ski, so three of the four top distance skiers so far this season will not be on the start line on December 29th in Toblach.

That leaves Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, Krista Pärmakoski and Jessica Diggins as the favourites among the women.

The 13th edition of the Tour de Ski runs from December 29th to January 6th, visiting four venues and covering all formats:

Toblach, Italy December 29-30

Val Müstair, Switzerland January 1

Oberstdorf, Germany January 2-3

Val Di Fiemme, Italy January 5-6.