DAVOS, Switzerland – As U.S. Ski Team women’s coach Matt Whitcomb said after today’s 1.5 kilometer freestyle sprint, he was proud that Kikkan Randall “put herself in a position to win the race today.”
Randall lost a photo finish to Marit Bjørgen of Norway. But to go for the win, you have to show up at the fight in the first place – and today, Randall almost didn’t, after being nearly pushed off the course in the final.
Midway through the two-loop course, the women were skiing through the stadium on a long, gradual incline. After some some sharp corners, it was one of the widest sections of the course and a chance to make passes. Both Randall and eventual race winner Marit Bjørgen of Norway had been using the section in many of their heats, taking the opportunity to move their way up through the field after hanging near the back of the pack for the first loop.
After this exact situation played out again in the final, Randall was on the right and quickly gaining ground on Sweden’s Hanna Erikson (formerly Brodin) and Stina Nilsson, who were leading at the time. But as the stadium came to an end, Randall ran out of room and found herself boxed between Nilsson and the side of the course.
For a scary moment, it looked like the American – who won her quarterfinal and semifinal heats, and was the best sprinter in the world for the last two years – might go down.
“I had a little bit of a challenge on that second lap,” Randall admitted. “I felt like I got shut off of the course a little bit, so I had to make an extra acceleration and go around.”
Randall and Nilsson tangled skis briefly. Neither went down, but both had to make serious readjustments.
“I think Kikkan wanted to increase the speed, so she passed me on the inside,” Nilsson told FasterSkier. “Our skis touched each other, but it was nobody’s fault. It happens in sprints.”
Nilsson dropped to the back of the field and never recovered, finishing sixth. But she didn’t blame her slowdown on the incident with Randall.
“I got more lactate [in my legs] after it, but I did my best,” the 2012 World Junior Champion said. “I would be tired anyway, but it came as a shock. It didn’t matter though, I’m happy with my sixth place. I’ve never been in a semifinal in skating, so I’m very happy.”
The American team would assign a little more blame to Nilsson than the Swede was willing to admit.
“It was tough when I was trying to kind of come up the inside, and the Swedish girl seemed to be skiing more and more off the best line, until she basically ran me into the v-boards,” Randall said. “That was like, I was trying to say, hey, hey! So that’s an unfortunate move. It’s not necessarily fair play.”
Whitcomb said that he went to the jury office and reviewed the video carefully. Ultimately, he did not file a complaint, but he wanted to have the best information possible – not just Randall’s account of the incident or views that the team could see from the stadium.
“I don’t personally see it as a direct infraction,” Whitcomb said. “But I think it’s important for us to be on our game, and to make sure that we’re not being pushed around even after the race is over. We need to know where the lines are with these rules.”
Part of the reason that he didn’t press harder is that while Nilsson may have pushed Randall out, Randall was the one who put herself in that position in the first place.
“It’s a tough lane that Kikkan chose, to come inside there as the course bends left a little bit,” he said. “So definitely, as it was happening, we saw it happening. It would have been nice to have a little more room there, but at the same time, rubbing is racing, and I’m really proud of how Kikkan was able to sustain a few taps and blows out there.”
Randall ultimately lost in a photo finish. Would things have gone differently if she had been able to keep up a steady speed all the way through the middle of the heat?
Maybe, she suggested. After all, when you lose by two centimeters, even the smallest of incidents can take on big meanings.
“I felt like I actually had good energy at the end,” Randall said. “If anything maybe it would have given me that extra gear over the top of the hill, which would have been important for getting a little bit more room.”
While the win would have been great, Whitcomb said that the ski tangle perhaps gave them something even more important as the team heads towards the Olympics.
“The interesting thing about it is that the person it teaches the most is probably Kikkan,” he said. “Because, as a great racer you spend so much time in these heats, but often by yourself, with people being careful of you. We’re really aware that they’re not going to touch Kikkan out there, just like with Northug – you know that if you click on Northug’s tails, the TV camera is on you. But it’s great for Kikkan to have some contact out there and get a feel for it. The courses in Sochi are fairly quick and windy, and there’s going to be contact there. So it’s a great experience for us.”