QUEBEC CITY – When you’re as talented as Kikkan Randall, there are a lot of great moments to put in the memory bank. The soon-to-be 30-year-old’s silver medal from 2009 World Championships stands out, but so do the five World Cup wins she had before Saturday’s 1.6-kilometer World Cup freestyle sprint.
The sixth one in Quebec City turned out to be a real keeper. After the U.S. Ski Team veteran beat Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla and Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter to the line of the women’s final, it wasn’t so much the race itself but what happened after that she’d never forget.
Thousands of fans lined the 800-meter course, several of which stood near the finish holding American and Canadian flags across the barriers in front of them. Randall was certainly focused on keeping Falla and Ingemarsdotter at bay just behind her throughout the final, but it wasn’t to say she didn’t see all that outside stuff.
Upon entering what was considered the stadium (actually a historic street called Grand Allée) for the last time, Randall picked up the pace in the final stretch, fulfilling the crowd’s excitement. She wasn’t Canadian, but this might as well have been a home race for the Anchorage native. Screams filled the air.
Randall continued to push toward the line as Falla and Ingemarsdotter struggled to remain close. She finished first in 3:42.25 and gave three little fist pumps as Falla came through 1.1 seconds later, followed by Ingemarsdotter in third (+1.4 seconds back).
“I knew Kikkan would be really fast in the last lap like she was yesterday,” Falla said, referring to Randall’s team sprint win – a first for the Americans – with teammate Jessie Diggins. “When she was passing me I was just trying to hold on, but she was really good today. I think I did my best but she was better today.”
From the start, Falla vied for position with Randall and took the lead by the first uphill corner. Much like Randall’s semifinal (which she won as well as her quarterfinal), she sat tight in second – but not for long. By the start of the second lap, Randall accelerated up the outside and jetted to the front.
When it comes to sprint tactics, Randall said she prefers to lead in order to set the pace and pick the best lines. But she’s trying to get used to following, too.
She made her move on the last lap based on good feelings in her legs and decided, “Why not?”
“The strategy worked well yesterday, being in the lead for the first two laps, so when I saw that opportunity, I took it,” she said.
Meanwhile, the rest of the field, including Falla, Ingemarsdotter up front, tried to hang on.
“When I went out of the second lap I felt something behind me was happening [and] it was Kikkan,” Ingemarsdotter said. “It was us three, but then I switched position and just worked the whole way.”
In her first individual World Cup sprint of the season, Ingemarsdotter said she was satisfied. “This is a good start to the sprint season for me,” she said.
Just off the podium, Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Oestbergtook placed fourth (+2.2). Mona-Lisa Malvalehto of Finland was 2.9 seconds behind in fifth, and Russian Natalia Korosteleva took sixth (+3.2).
As the others caught their breaths, Randall looked over to the sideline to see her U.S. teammate Holly Brooks holding a large American stick flag out for her. Randall suddenly realized she got to lead the victory “lap” back down final stretch and took it from her.
“It was one of the coolest things I think I’ve ever done, definitely one of the sporting moments that’s going to stand out for me,” Randall said after notching her sixth individual World Cup gold and second victory in as many days (she and Jessie Diggins became the first Americans to win a World Cup team sprint on Friday). In total, she’s won seven World Cup titles, all in skate sprints.
“I had heard that would maybe get to ski up and down the finish stretch if you made the top three,” she said. “I was so focused on the race that I kind of forgot about that until Holly handed me the flag and was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right, we get to do this.’ It was totally fun.”
It was the first time she got to celebrate a win that way, and doing so in front of so many animated fans made it a more unique experience.
“I’ve never seen so much enthusiasm come together all at once,” she said. “I was getting comments from all the other European athletes going, ‘Wow, you guys really get fired up. In Sweden it’s a polite clap’… I’m proud that our fans came and put on a good show as well. We’re in Canada and yet the U.S. presence was so strong.”
That kind of outwardly motivation makes each win or personal best exciting for her, even if it wasn’t surprising. She put Saturday’s right up there with World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic.
“All those experiences have their special places,” she said. “At World Championships that was kind of like a new level and that was incredible, but [this] was right up there. … It’s taken so much to get here and to be able to do it here at home, which is hopefully inspiring the next generation, it’s so cool. It just keeps me coming back for more.”
In the qualifier, Randall placed third, 6.3 seconds behind wMalvalehto, who was first in 3:35.89. (Russia’s Svetlana Nikolaeva ranked second, but didn’t advance to the finals and ended up 11th.) For Randall, that qualifier alone was a good sign of things to come, U.S. head coach Chris Grover said.
“If you ever see her in bib 10 or less, you know she’s probably going to go all the way to the podium,” he said. “To ski with such authority and control in each heat, you knew that she wasn’t on the edge of her fitness … and you knew she’d be able to dig deep when the time came in the final.”
Her consistency has worn the novelty pretty thin, but her biggest fans haven’t lost their excitement.
“I’ve definitely seen her win a few World Cups now … but it still feels incredibly good to have that kind of success,” Grover said.
“We’re super-excited. … All the hard work and dedication paid off,” Randall’s mom, Deborah, said. “Now we can really super-party.”
– Topher Sabot contributed reporting