On a foggy day in the mountains up the road from Sochi, Russia, Kikkan Randall (USA) proved to the world once again that she can overcome any obstacle to reach the top of a World Cup podium. The first Olympic test event of the weekend took place on Friday at the Laura Cross-Country Stadium, where Randall led each of her freestyle sprint heats from start to finish. In the final she bested France’s Aurore Jean and Norway’s Celine Brun-Lie to claim her second individual sprint victory of the season.
This would just be another World Cup win at any other venue — which speaks to Randall’s consistency more than anything else — but in Sochi the result has added significance.
“Over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to build my confidence leading into this knowing that I could be versatile over different courses and different conditions,” Randall said in a USSA press release. “To show up here and think ‘OK, this is the [Olympic] course and test it out’ — I’m super happy that my ability to be strong over many courses works out well on this course as well.”
To say that Randall has been reliable this season is a severe understatement. Excluding the first sprint in Kuusamo, she has finished first or second in every sprint event, team or individual, she’s started in this year. In total, she has stood on a World Cup podium nine times since November.
Friday’s victory in her marquee event is even more impressive when you consider she was sick earlier this week, and was forced to lay low upon arrival in Russia. The day before the sprint was the first time Randall said felt race-ready all week.
“Just in the nick of time,” she wrote in an email on Thursday. “Not sure where my body will be tomorrow but I’m hopeful that it will spark through the rounds.”
From now on, if Randall says she’s hopeful the day before her favorite event, count on her making it to the podium.
She began the day with the second-fastest qualifier and didn’t let up until she crossed the line in the final round a half second ahead of Jean. The women’s course was relatively short in Sochi — only 1.2 k and well under three minutes skiing time. If Randall’s winning strategy is any indication, a strong start off the line was crucial to doing well.
“Today there was snow falling and that was definitely part of it,” Randall said. “The tactics could change if it was a clear day, but today it was advantageous to be in front. I’d have strong starts each time and I’d get in the front, kind of ski up the hill and put in a good push over the top.”
The course climbed for almost two minutes before dropping back down, spinning around a sharp downhill corner and shooting into the finishing stretch. Randall learned from how she successfully skied her quarter- and semi-final rounds that she could win by skiing from the front the whole way, and in the final she repeated the strategy. Brun-Lie challenged her out of the gate but Randall held her off to take the ‘hole-shot’ up the first hill, and never relinquished the lead.
“It’s a fun course, it’s deceptively tough,” Randall said. “I think I skied it really well.”
The second-place finisher in any race can sometimes be bitter about just missing gold, but on Friday this was not the case. It Jean’s first career podium finish on the World Cup and the best result the French women have seen all year.
“It is amazing to be on the podium,” Jean said in the post-race press conference. “It was a great day… I almost started crying when I crossed the finish. The result has given me confidence to the next year.”
For Brun-Lie in third, Friday’s sprint was only her second appearance on the podium this season. The depth on the Norwegian team typically overshadows her, but 24-year-old was plenty pleased to break through again in Sochi.
“I am happy about the third place today,” Brun-Lie said. “I felt good the whole day. I liked the sprint course; it is very nice to be competing in Sochi and to test the courses for the Olympics.”
Brun-Lie’s teammate Astrid Jacobsen took fourth in the final, 0.4 seconds out of third. The top four created a gap on Mari Laukkanen (FIN) and Ida Sargent (USA) in fifth and sixth, respectively. For both the final two finishers in the final, the outcome was the conclusion to a career-defining day. Laukkanen, a biathlete, had only started in three cross-country World Cups in her entire life prior to Sochi and had never before made it close to the top five. On Friday she posted the fasted qualifying time in the field, a half second ahead of Randall herself.
Sochi was also a career-first appearance in a World Cup sprint final for Sargent, who qualified 17th. She proceeded to win her quarterfinal and made it through the semis as a lucky loser in a fast heat.
“This is my third time this year making the semis and I always felt like I was close,” Sargent said. “I kind of felt like it was going to happen at some point, but I definitely wouldn’t have expected it in a skate sprint. It just worked out well today — we had awesome skis, the coaches did a great job, and I think we had a great week of training in Les Saises, it it’s just cool to see things come together.”
When things come together at an Olympic test event, it’s hard not to look ahead. In victory, Randall was most excited about what Friday’s results mean for the rest of her team, who together put five women in the top 21.
“This is actually the setup I used to dream the Olympic [venue] would look like before I went to my first one in 2002,” Randall said. “Obviously it’s a strong course for the team, so that’s exciting.”