The open relay cross-country saw a thrilling battle between two of the biggest stars at the 2019 World Para Nordic Skiing Championships on Saturday (23 February) in Prince George, Canada.
It featured a head-to-head contest in the third leg between France’s Benjamin Daviet and Norway’s Vilde Nilsen, with 18-year-old Nilsen holding her own to help give her nation the exciting victory.
Daviet, who already had five world titles in Prince George, had another stellar run in that third leg, moving France from fifth to first. It looked like they were on their way to gold.
But Nilsen mustered every ounce of power to sprint to the line and kept her team in contention for first. She finished the third leg only about 40 seconds behind Daviet.
France were heavy favourites as the two-time defending world champions in this event. But the team decided to use only two skiers who did double duty, taking turns doing the 2.5 km legs. Daviet was joined by Anthony Chalencon, who normally skis in the vision impaired category with guide Simon Valverde.
As the skiers climbed the final hill and entered the stretch drive, Norway’s Eirik Bye, who competes with guide Eivind Roed, overtook an exhausted Chalencon and the celebration began.
Bye was practically mobbed at the finish line by his exuberant teammates, Trygve Steinar Larsen, Hakon Olsrud and Nilsen.
A joyful Nilsen jumped up and down, vigorously waving the Norwegian flag after winning her third World Championship gold in Canada.
“I was so shocked when I saw that Eirik had passed the Frenchman,” Nilsen said. “We were all screaming and couldn’t believe our eyes. It’s something special to win as a team and share the joy because we train a lot together and support each other.”
When he crossed the line in first place, Bye did not even know what to make of it.
“It was a very strange feeling. I have never felt it before,” he said.
Larsen added, “The whole team put in an enormous effort. Every hair on my body stood up when I saw Eirik closing the gap on the French. It’s fantastic.”
Olsrud was chocking back the emotions.
“I’m glad I had these sunglasses on,” he said. “They will stay there for the rest of the day probably.”
Ukraine made up a lot of ground in the last lap to win bronze. The team consisted of Iaroslav Reshetynskyi and guide Kostiantyn Yaremenko, Bohdana Konashuk, Grygorii Vovchynskyi along with Anatolii Kovalevskyi and his guide Oleksandr Mukshyn.
Reigning Paralympic champions Ukraine successfully defended their World Championship gold in the mixed relay event earlier on Saturday.
Several of the athletes who starred in the individual events in Prince George competed as a team in the relay that brings together male and female skiers, as well as athletes from different classes.
During the opening 2.5 km leg, Dmytro Suiarko, who competes in the men’s vision impaired competition with guide Vasyl Potapenko, built up a big lead for Ukraine with Japan second and Canada more than a minute behind.
Emily Young moved Canada to within a second of Japan after she completed a strong second lap, but it looked like the race for gold was over.
However, her teammate Mark Arendz had a terrific third leg for the home nation, receiving big cheers as he rounded the course.
Arendz, who has won a medal in every race he has competed in but not yet won gold in Prince George, moved Canada to within 10 seconds of top spot.
But Ukraine’s 25-year-old Liudmyla Liashenko began the final leg.
Liashenko has been in dynamite form throughout the 2019 Worlds. That continued in the relay. She pulled away from Canada’s Natalie Wilkie to win her fourth title in Prince George.
Ukraine, who now have 37 medals from Prince George, won gold with Oleksandra Kononova and Yuliia Batenkova-Bauman joining Liashenko and Suiarko.
“They are a powerhouse,” Young said of Ukraine. “We know what we are up against. It’s intimidating because they are fast. They’ve always been fast.”
Canada won the silver behind Ukraine just like it did at PyeongChang 2018.
Arendz added: “This is the one race we actually get to race as a team not as individuals. I think it just shows the strength of our team what we were able to accomplish today.”
Germany came from behind to defeat Japan for the bronze medal.
The German team was made up of sit skier Andrea Eskau, who completed two laps, along with Alexander Ehler, Nico Messinger and his guide Lutz Peter Klausmann.
The Championships wrap up Sunday (24 February) with the long distance cross-country.
You can catch live action, highlights and full results at https://www.paralympic.org/prince-george-2019