Winning more medals than any other athlete at PyeongChang 2018, five in total, Norwegian cross-country skiing idol Marit Bjørgen became the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time, with a collection of 15 medals to her name. Eight of them are golds, equalling the record held by her compatriots Ole Einar Bjørndalen and Bjørn Daehlie, who won their titles in biathlon and cross-country respectively. Those records are just two of the many she has achieved during her remarkable career.
Bjørgen has won everything there is to win since embarking on her international career as a 19-year-old in 1999. The first of her 15 Olympic medals was a silver in the women’s 4x5km team relay at Salt Lake City 2002, when she formed part of a Norwegian quartet also featuring Bente Skari, Helde Pedersen and Anita Moan.
Bjørgen secured her maiden FIS World Cup win later that year in the freestyle sprint in Dusseldorf (GER), while a maiden world title came her way the following year in the same event in Val di Fiemme (ITA).
Though she started out as a sprint specialist and scored her first ten career wins in the freestyle and classical events thanks to her explosive power, Bjørgen expanded her repertoire to longer distances during the 2004/05 season, with yet more victories and podium finishes coming her way.
The Norwegian great added to her World Championship medal collection by pocketing three golds, a silver and a bronze in Oberstdorf (GER) in 2005. She followed up with four golds and a silver in Oslo-Holmenkollen (NOR) in 2011, a haul she repeated in Val di Fiemme two years later and to which she added two golds and a silver in Falun (SWE) in 2015 and four golds in Lahti in 2017. By end of her career she had amassed 26 World Championship medals, 18 of them golds.
She was just as prolific in the World Cup, taking the overall title in 2005, 2008, 2012 and 2015, winning six small crystal globes and amassing 184 top-three finishes, including 114 individual wins – another outright record. Remarkably, however, it was not until Vancouver 2010 that she won her first Olympic gold.
After a disappointing Turin 2006, where stomach pains restricted her to just the one medal – a silver in the 10km classical – Bjørgen bounced back in style at the Whistler Olympic Park four years later, climbing on to the podium in every event she entered.
She began with bronze in the 10km freestyle and then won three golds in a row (in the sprint, the 15km pursuit and the 4x5km team relay) before taking silver in the 30km classical, an event in which she finished just 0.3 seconds behind Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk.
That impressive haul made her the most successful female athlete of the XXI Olympic Winter Games and led to her also collecting the Holmenkollen Medal, the highest distinction Nordic skiing has to offer.
Her form undimmed by the time Sochi 2014 came around, the Norwegian successfully defended her Olympic 15km pursuit title and then partnered Ingvild Flugstad Ostberg to gold in the women’s team sprint.
She saved the best till last, getting the better of compatriots Therese Johaug and Kristin Stormer Steira to win the blue riband 30km freestyle event at her fourth attempt.
In winning her tenth Olympic medal, the Norwegian equalled the Soviet Union’s Raisa Smetanina and Italy’s Stefania Belmondo, both of them cross-country skiers. And in claiming her six Olympic title, she pulled level with the cross-country skier Lyubov Yegorova and the speed skater Lidiya Skoblikova (both of whom represented the former Soviet Union) as the most prolific female gold medallists in the history of the Winter Games.
The owner of more golds than Smetanina and Belmondo and more medals than Yegorova and Skoblikova, Bjoergen also became the most decorated female Winter Olympian of all time.
Bjørgen began the 2014/15 FIS World Cup season by winning the one event absent from her extensive list of career honours: the Tour de Ski, the first leg of a World Cup grand slam that she completed by winning the distance and sprint crystal globes and the Nordic Opening title. Not surprisingly, the season ended with the Norwegian collecting her fourth big crystal globe.
Speaking on Norwegian TV in April 2015, Bjørgen announced that she was taking time out for a very good reason: “I have a little bombshell to drop here today: I’m going to be a mother in December. I plan to come back, though. My goal is the World Championships in Lahti.
On 26 December that year, she and partner Fred Borre Lundberg, the two-time Olympic Nordic combined champion, celebrated the arrival of a baby boy, Marius.
Bjørgen made the best possible return to the competitive arena at the 2017 World Championships in Lahti (FIN), winning the 10km classic, 15km skiathlon, 30km freestyle and the 4x5km relay with her Norwegian team-mates.
Though she was fast approaching 38, the medals kept coming her way at PyeongChang 2018, where she lived up to her nickname of “Gull Marit” (“Golden Marit”). She kicked off her fifth Olympic Winter Games with a silver in the skiathlon on the day after the Opening Ceremony, finishing seven seconds behind Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla.
Bjørgen then shared bronze with Finland’s Krista Parmakoski in a 10km freestyle race won by her compatriot Ragnhild Haga. In the 4x5km relay two days later, she skied a storming anchor leg to beat Sweden’s Stina Nilsson in a thrilling finish to claim gold for Norway and the seventh Olympic title of her career.
In her penultimate outing of the Games, she joined forces with Maiken Caspersen Falla to win bronze in a free sprint won by the USA. Then, on the final day of competition, Bjørgen broke clear of the field after 10km of the 30km classical to collect a joint-record eighth Olympic gold, putting her level with two other Norwegians: biathlete Ole Einar Bjørndalen and cross-country skier Bjørn Daehlie.
With her five medals, “Queen Marit” was the most decorated athlete of PyeongChang 2018, while her overall haul of 15 Olympic medals is two more than previous record holder Bjørndalen managed.
She also became the third most successful Olympian of all time – Summer and Winter – behind US swimmer Michael Phelps (28 medals, including 23 golds) and Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina (18 medals, including nine golds).
“It’s incredible when I look back and see what I’ve done,” she said after her commanding 30km win. “I’ve had a wonderful career. These are my last Games and to finish off like this is just fantastic.”
Contemplating the legacy she would leave on hanging up her skis, Bjørgen said: “The future is bright for Norway, with more and more young athletes making it to the top. I also think that the reason why we’re so strong is that they have idols who’ve shown the way and who they can identify with. After these Games, we’re perhaps going to see more boys and girls coming through. If they’re doing cross-country or something else like Alpine skiing or skating, then it’s all good for the future.”
Bjørgen made the last competitive appearance of her stellar career at the Norwegian Championships on 6 April 2018, announcing that at the age of 38 she no longer had the motivation “to compete 100% for another season”. While her host of records will surely stand for a long time, her influence on her sport will endure even longer.
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