Lillehammer’s punishing race course was blanketed in heavy snow Sunday as the US women warmed up for the 4 x 5 k relay. But the weather conditions didn’t dampen the spirits of defending World Champion Kikkan Randall or the rest of the US Women’s team.“
The weather elements made it a very different day than yesterday,” said Randall, “but its was kind of fun. I like racing in those conditions.”
The Americans claimed a bronze medal, finishing 1:36.5 behind the Norwegians to close out the second weekend of World Cup racing. The United States tied last year’s best ever 4×5 relay result. It also marked the rare, and possible unheard occasion, of the US women fielding two relay teams.
Randall went out hard from the gate, creating a small gap early in the race. At 2 k, she had 5 seconds on the competition. She said she hadn’t planned on taking the lead, but after a strong start, she decided to go for it.
“It’s better to ski my own tempo than try to fit in someone else’s stride. So it was great to get out front and just really control the pace,” said Randall. “Then when Heidi Weng went … I was ready to counter her move. I did everything I could to stay on her heels, and I was able to all the way up.”
Randall realized she set teammate Sadie Bjornsen up just the way she’d wanted to. “It was good to tag off to Sadie kind of in the pack, knowing we were right there in touch at the front,” Randall said.
Bjornsen said she knew she could keep up with the Norwegians, and stay ahead of the Finns, the Russians and the Swedes who were all bearing down from behind.
“[Therese] Johaug (NOR) took off like a crazy lady from the start and then it was fun to chase,” Bjornsen said. “We were trying to make some room behind us.”
She held back on the first lap until the Finn, Anne Kylloenen, took over at 2 k.
“That was great because it was somebody to hang on to,” she said. “It was really awesome to have that Finnish girl just to chase down and that’s why I was so stoked where Kikkan put me, because there were people to ski with out there.”
Bjornsen and Kylloenen skied nearly on top of each other for the next lap, with Russian Alija Iksanova trying, but ultimately failing, to make contact.
Bjornsen and Kylloenen battled on the long multi-pitch climb as their 5 k leg wound down.
“[Kylloenen] let me lead at the beginning and then took over and then I actually tried to go take over again, but every time you pulled out in the other track [the snow] was so deep and slow that she would actually drop me when I was trying to pass her,” said Bjornsen. “On days like today, it’s kind of nice to be in the front because it gets to be your stride and it’s tricky out there,” she said. “You kind of want to do your own thing. It’s hard to follow someone else’s stride in such crazy weather.”
With a blanket of fresh snow, and more falling from above, Bjornsen said the entire field was challenged. “
It’s so much about how you can work the skis and you certainly can go in slipping all over the place, but you just have to remember to collect yourself and try again because everyone’s out there slipping around some and so you just have to learn to be patient … you just have to collect your mind and know that its’s relay day and just have to keep going,” she said.
With the Russians and the Swedes still close behind, Bjornsen said she knew she had to stay focused. “I didn’t look back but I was trying to listen to see if anyone was close and at one point, I think there was a four-runner right behind us because the four runners were just out there everywhere and I was like ‘oh no! somebody’s coming up on us,’ but I actually didn’t know that we had broken people a little bit,” she said.
The Norwegians continued to widen the gap between themselves and the rest of the field as Bjornsen dueled Finland back into the stadium, where teammate, Liz Stephen was waiting to skate the third leg.
“It was tricky,” said Stephen. But she said she was happy about the fresh powder. “I actually was pretty excited when I saw the snow this morning,” she said. “Just because in general, the snowier and the slower it is, the better for me.”
Despite a rush of adrenaline after a tag from Bjornsen, Stephen said she just couldn’t find the energy she was looking for. “I was feeling a little bit tired so it didn’t go quite as well as I was hoping on my leg.”
Stephen took a day off from racing Saturday and she felt good heading into today’s relay. “I was certainly prepared for today. Sometimes your body feels invincible and sometimes you get tired,” she said. But Stephen held close to Finland as the Swedes started gaining from behind. “If I had known how my body was going to feel today, I would have stuck behind Finland for a bit longer,” said Stephen.
She wasn’t as concerned with Norway’s leading position as she was with Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, the runner-up in Saturday’s 10 k classic, who was gaining ground. “I knew that they were 30 seconds behind in the beginning and I didn’t want to give her even an idea of trying to catch us, so I [didn’t want to] hang around Finland too long. I was trying to really push the pace … to have Charlotte work harder than maybe she would have liked to work to catch us.”
While Stephen led most of the second of two 2.5 k loops, Finland’s Kerttu Niskanenan never faltered. Halfway up the long gradual climb, she came by Stephen, and the American was unable to respond.
Stephen worked hard to minimize the damage, but almost lost it all on the final turn in the stadium.
“I almost fell,” she said. “I was pretty tired and there was a little bit of a track – parts of the track were a little more skied in than other parts and my left ski just kind of went off into the powder and planted between my legs and I just did a little balancing act, but caught it so it was good,” she said.
Stephen’s battle with gravity offered some foreshadowing of what was to come for the relay’s final skier, Jesse Diggins.
“I was really psyched to get out there,” said a positive Diggins. “I love 5 k’s especially in this condition where it’s as hard and deep and snowy and just kind of actually crappy.”
Diggins said her teammates are at their best when the weather is at its worst. “We’re tough,” she said. “The course was really hard and slow, but you just have to take these quick little steps and just float over the snow and we practiced this kind of skiing. We’ve been on the glacier, some days in Bend are kind of like that where you’re slogging through stuff.”
Diggins held back from the start, drawing on previous races where she said she blew up too early. “I slowly reeled in Finland… About half way through, I caught up with [Finland's Krista Lahteenmaki] and we had dropped Norway II and Sweden, so I knew we were in for a medal and it would either be silver or bronze,” she said.
As Diggins and Lahteenmaki raced over the top of the last climb, past the cameras at the summit and started the descent, Diggins said her energy was good. She was ready for a sprint. “I was like ‘ok, bring it! We can do this, we have this silver medal!’ but then I caught my tip in the powder in the same spot that Liz talked about where suddenly you’re in the track and the the track is good and then suddenly it goes away and you’re in some powder,” she said.
Diggins’ pole snapped, but she recovered quickly, crossing a bridge and heading down a hill. Near the bottom, Norwegian coach Vidar Lofshus was waiting for Diggins with a replacement pole. “Which was really cool,” said Diggins, “because they didn’t have to do that.” Diggins was able to act fast enough to hold off Sweden and Norway’s second relay team to clinch the bronze. “
Jessie’s the best,” said teammate Kikkan Randall. “She’s become quite the connoisseur of racing without a pole,” she joked. Diggins agreed. “Apparently this is really my thing right now, to have either a crash, lose a pole or break a pole, or all three today. The nice thing is if something does go weird in Sochi, I feel like I’ve practiced every possible scenario,” laughed Diggins.
The American’s claimed the bronze medal in 1:00:15.4, to tie their best ever third place finish last November in Gaellivare, Sweden, a quartet that included Diggins, Randall and Stephen. It’s a result Kikkan Randall says the whole team is pleased with. “When we put together four strong legs, we’re right in the hunt and we brought that confidence into today and everybody went out and skied really strong,” she said. “We’re far from being in our peak form right now so to put to ether a solid day here is great and we know we’re just going to keep getting better and better.”
But the American women are still facing Norwegian domination. “We got a really funny email from a 44 year old guy in Norway who told us we just have to stress out Marit [Bjoergen],” laughed Randall. “He said we just have to get her stressed out on the last leg,” she joked. But Randall says Norway is definitely beatable. “We’re getting close. Our best form is still coming. You’ve got some people that are starting off this year super hot, some people that are building into it so when it comes to Sochi, you just gotta stay close and if we put them under pressure, anything can happen,” she said.
Second US Women’s Relay Finishes Strong
It’s not often that United States has had a chance to field two relay teams in a World Cup race, but that was the scenario Sunday in Lillehammer. The second American team clinched a 12th place finish in 1:01:59.4.
“The start was a little hectic, but I just focused on staying calm,” wrote the relay’s first leg skier, Sophie Caldwell in an email. “There were a couple sections where I managed to find some free track and scoot up a few places and before I knew it, I found myself towards the front of the pack.”
She said the fresh, heavy snow was challenging. “It was important to maintain contact with people, so I wanted to get into a good position as soon as possible without getting frantic about it.”
Caldwell found herself within reach of the leaders. She said she decided to pace conservatively to save energy. “I’m not really a power skier, but I was still surprised to find myself hanging onto that lead pack. I kept having to check in with myself to make sure I was actually feeling that good and I wasn’t just getting over excited and about to blow up!” she wrote.
After a frantic start, the group skied in a long line, making it easy for Caldwell to save up some juice for a push at the end of her leg. “I had made it half way, was still feeling good, and had 2.5 kms to hold on for dear life,” she wrote. “The pace continued to be fairly relaxed out of the stadium and then on the last huge hill, Heidi Weng (NOR) made a move and Kikkan and the Russian went with her. I was focusing on staying stride-for-stride with Ingvild [Flugstad Oestberg (NOR)] and they opened a little gap on us, but we were able to close it back up on the downhill,” she said. Caldwell said she gave everything she had for a fast hand-off to Ida Sargent.
In an email, Sargent said she was also happy with how Caldwell had set her up. “It was really hard to pass out there and I was trying to ski conservatively from the beginning,” said Sargent.
She said she should have made a bigger move earlier in her leg of the race. “I got stuck behind Vibeke [Skofterrud (NOR) when the Finnish girl took off and made a break,” Sargent wrote.
“I wasted a lot of energy on the big climb skiing in the other track and trying to pass, so I was pretty tired by the end but it was fun to be in the mix. I felt a lot better than yesterday but I think I still have room for improvement,” wrote Sargent, who came into the stadium to hand things off to Holly Brooks.
Brooks, who has been struggling to find her top form this year, lost ground on the first skate leg, dropping the team from seventh to tenth. She kept within striking distance of several team ahead.
Rosie Brennan closed out the race for the team. In an email she said the exchange between her and Brooks was flawless. “I was pretty nervous just because in a relay you have three others depending on you putting together a good race, and of course I was excited because relays can be unpredictable,” wrote Brennan. She took off next to Polish skier Agnieszka Szymanczak.
She said it was nice to ski near someone, but the competition from behind was fierce. “We had some strong skaters chasing us down up the last hill. Russia and France passed us and I tried to go with them, but they were a little stronger and I couldn’t keep pace over the top of the hill,” she wrote. “My legs had quite a bit of fatigue and skating through deep snow has never been a specialty of mine.”
She said getting dropped was disappointing, but the entire race culminated in what Sophie Caldwell described as “one big pink hug” between both of the American relay teams. “They had to break it up for the podium ceremony,” wrote Caldwell. “I think relays are a very special event because everyone manages to find an extra gear when they’re doing it for their teammates,” she wrote.
– Alex Matthews Contributed reporting