Meet Russia’s Beijing golden girls
The Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) team has its third gold medal of the Beijing Winter Olympics after an imperious performance from the women’s 4x5km cross-country relay team in China on Saturday.
The awesome Russian foursome romped home after a tussle with the second-placed Germans, while powerhouses Sweden were forced to settle for the bronze.
Russia’s ROC stars celebrated wildly on clinching victory as youngster Veronika Stepanova anchored the final leg.
There was even a celebratory twirl on the podium from some of the quartet as they made history by becoming the first winners of the event from their homeland since 2006 – improving on the bronze medal finish in the same event in PyeongChang four years ago.
Here, we meet the four Russian skiing sensations who did their nation proud with their scintillating showing at the Zhangjiakou Skiing Center.
Saturday’s race was a tale of redemption for Stupak and capped a complete reverse from her despondent mood earlier during the Games in Beijing.
After falling flat in her first race – finishing down in 24th place in the skiathlon a week ago on Saturday – a tearful Stupak openly wondered whether she should call time on her career.
Calling her performance “total trash,” the 27-year-old lamented the health struggles that have preceded the months leading up to the Olympics.
And while Stupak suffered further disappointment in the women’s sprint and 10km classic races, performances were notably on the up as she roused herself from her dejected mood.
That continued on Saturday as Stupak was superb as she charged out of the blocks over the first 5km, ensuring the ROC were well set from the outset.
After her teammates finished the job, Stupak was jubilant as the team made its way to the podium, even breaking into a dance that has become something of a trademark for her ever since she jived at the Tour de Ski last year.
“I don’t believe it. I don’t know why the girls believe it, but I still don’t understand what happened,” an incredulous Stupak told the Russian media, even bursting into a song.
A mother-of-one, Stupak now has three Olympic medals to her name after being part of the Russian team which won bronze in the same event in PyeongChang four years ago, as well as picking up a bronze in the sprint in South Korea.
Like her teammates, Stupak can now call herself an Olympic champion.
The ROC team’s second leg on Saturday was raced by Natalia Nepryaeva, who has become one of the biggest stars of these Games for her nation.
It was Nepryaeva who kicked off the ROC’s medal tally a week ago on Saturday when she earned silver in the women’s skiathlon.
That was an emotional medal to add to the bronze that the Tver-born skier won as part of the 4x5km relay team at the Winter Olympics four years ago – alongside Stupak.
Nepryaeva came agonizingly close to claiming another medal at the Beijing Games on Thursday, but was just 0.1 seconds off third place in the women’s 10km classic, where she collapsed in exhaustion and despair at the finish line.
But dejection has turned to jubilation in the space of two days, after Nepryaeva kept the Russian team firmly in the running for gold with her second leg performance on Saturday.
“I left a lot of emotions at the finish line today,” Nepryaeva told Russian TV.
“In fact, when I saw that Yulia had already made such a gap, it was difficult to cope with my emotions, I tried not to pay attention to anyone and run my race as best I could.
“I tried not to let my rivals come back from behind. I’ve received tremendous support in recent days, so I am immensely grateful – it helps a lot.”
The 26-year-old is now set to go for more Beijing glory alongside Stupak in the women’s sprint relay on Wednesday.
Unlike Stupak and Nepryaeva, Sorina got a first taste of Olympic medal success as part of the team on Saturday.
The 27-year-old put in a solid third leg as the ROC tussled with the Germans, who were putting up an unexpected battle for gold as they held off traditional superpowers Norway and Sweden, as well as the Finns.
“I really wanted to get clear as soon as possible – I tried to do it on the slopes. But on the descents, again, nothing worked out, because of this I was upset that I couldn’t provide a lead for Veronika,” Sorina told Match TV afterwards.
“I tried not to get annoyed. I expected to run the stage better. The Germans were strong, they showed a performance. Who expected that the Germans would fight for medals.”
Despite that slight disappointment, Sorina more than played her part as she set the ROC team up for glory.
The Tver-born star – who gave birth to a daughter in March 2020 and is married to fellow Russian skier and coach Egor Sorin – added to the world championship silver medal she earned with the Russian team in Germany last year.
Last but certainly not least, Russian youngster Veronika Stepanova – a skier who has been a revelation since joining the senior ranks.
Even though she had plenty to do in an epic tussle with the Germans for gold, Stepanova stormed home in her final leg on Saturday to give the ROC a winning time of 53:41.0 – 18.2 seconds ahead of the Germans.
The joy from Stepanova was unrestrained as she crossed the finish line, and at just 21 years and 39 days old she becomes the youngest ever female cross-country Olympic champion, surpassing the previous record held by countrywoman and 1998 gold medalist Yulia Chepalova.
“On the second lap I already felt my strength, and the German was losing ground. Each hint from the coaches was like new motivation. I like to decide everything before the finish line,” Stepanova told Match TV, revealing that thoughts had come to mind of all the Russian youngsters who would be inspired by the team’s win.
Former world junior champion Stepanova has already become a force to be reckoned with in the senior ranks – and not only on the snow.
Stepanova is a popular social media presence who is not shy in sharing her views online – from taking Norwegian journalists to task for their claims that Russians shouldn’t be in Beijing, to calling out the New York Times for “objectifying” female skiers.
Stepanova took to Instagram to celebrate the ROC win on Saturday, writing: “For the country!”
After Stepanova brilliantly anchored the team to gold in Beijing, Russian fans can expect plenty more to come from their nation’s budding skiing superstar.