Simen Hegstad Krueger has done it again. The Norwegian "best skater in the world" won the men's 15km individual start free on Wednesday, claiming his second gold medal at the 2023 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Planica, Slovenia.
Krueger, 29, who finished second in the event at the world championships in Oberstdorf, Germany, 2021, was the fastest skier this time, with a 5.3-second margin to runner-up Harald Oestberg Amundsen, the 2021 bronze medallist. Hans Christian Holund, who won the race two years ago, claimed bronze and completed the Norwegian clean sweep – with the same trio on the podium as at the last world championships.
"It was unbelievable again," said Krueger who also has an Olympic 15km free silver medal from PyeongChang 2018.
"It's been one of my favourite distances throughout the years, here it is every man for himself. I have had two (championships) silver medals at this distance and now I have also won a gold. That's really, really amazing and I'm really proud of that."
It was some nerve-wrecking seconds waiting for Harald
Simen Hegstad Krueger
With start number 44, Krueger was the first of the Norwegian gold medal candidates to go out on the course and could not take advantage of knowing the other racers' splits. He decided to set off at a brutal pace from the beginning to make sure no-one behind him could match his time.
"I had to fight for it today," Krueger said.
"I started quite early and I knew that I had some strong guys behind me so I wanted to set up a good pace to be hard to beat. But I pushed a little too hard there in the middle so I really had to fight for it at the end there."
The last couple of kilometres were a struggle for Krueger, who lost 8.3 seconds to Amundsen in between the 12.7km mark and the finish line. While many thought Krueger's gold medal was in the box, he waited anxiously for his teammate to finish, knowing what Amundsen is capable of.
"It was some nerve-wrecking seconds waiting for Harald there, and he was so strong as well today," Krueger said.
"But (it is) amazing to win and be world champion, also together with Harald and Hans Christian on the podium, that's amazing.
"We are going to celebrate the triple for sure. It was the same triple as two years ago so we like this distance here. It will be a small celebration tonight."
Krueger won the men's skiathlon on Friday but showed that he is the man for the big moments.
"For sure I was tired after that skiathlon. It is a demanding race and a really tough one but luckily we had some days to reset both the body and the mind and get focused and ready for today," he said.
He has an outstanding record at major competitions. In ten races across world championships and Olympic Games, he has won nine medals, his world championships debut at Seefeld, Austria, in 2019 being the only exception.
"I don't know (why it is like this) but I wanted this so bad," Krueger said.
"I'm really, really happy and proud of myself to be able to make this victory after a really tough fight with Amundsen and Holund."
Right now he is the best skater in the world
Hans Christian Holund on Krueger
Holund said he was not surprised to see Krueger take over his 15km free world champion title.
"He's been super strong for many years now. Right now he is the best skater in the world and it's well-deserved that he is taking the victory today," Holund said.
Holund, 34, had paced his race well but ended up with the unpleasant task of having to fight for the bronze medal with the world's best sprinter, his teammate Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo.
Klaebo caught 11 seconds off Holund in the last two kilometres but he would have needed it to have been 12. Saved by a strong push in the last climb, Holund finished 0.9 seconds before the eight-time world champion.
"Last year at the Olympics I was at the fourth place two times and to be on the podium today is almost like winning," Holund said.
"It's a beautiful course. It's quite rough, a lot of hills and it's a fair track. I've been skiing here for ten days now, I'm getting to know the track and I knew that opening a little slow would be beneficial on this track. I had a plan and I'm super, super glad that it worked out my way."
Amundsen said he had not understood how close to a gold medal he actually was.
"It felt terrible," the 24-year-old said.
"It was a really hard race and I felt like I just had to be very strict about my pace, not too fast in some parts of the track, just a steady pace. I heard I was like 12 seconds behind Simen so I thought it was a bit long way up to him, but then I saw when I had finished that it was only five seconds, so I was kind of surprised.
"I was a bit surprised that Simen had such a strong lead in the beginning. But suddenly I got positive feedback. I gave it all until the end but I didn't have the last few seconds to catch Simen."
For Amundsen, the 15km free at the world championships had been one of the main races of the season.
"It's a big relief. I've been here for ten days now, just thinking about this race, trying not to be too nervous, but when I woke up today I was really nervous," he said.
"So I'm so happy that I had good skis and a pretty good shape and got a medal. That's the best I could've hoped for."
Sweden's William Poromaa broke the Norwegian dominance in the top-six, grabbing the fifth-place before Sjur Roethe from Norway in sixth.
Another highlight of the race was Ireneu Esteve Altimiras from Andorra, whose strong performance gave him a seventh-place.
Click here for full results from the men's 15km individual start free.