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SODA SPRINGS, Calif. – Kikkan Randall is quick to note her weakness in classic sprinting, but few at SuperTour Finals wouldn’t have picked her to win Saturday’s 1.5-kilometer classic sprint.
That made Ida Sargent’s underdog run to the final even sweeter.
Both U.S. Ski Team members, Sargent, of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP), is six years younger and in her second season on the national team.
Alternatively, Randall, an Alaska Pacific University (APU) staple, has been racing World Cups since 2001. At 30, she’s coming off her second-straight World Cup sprint crown and entered Saturday’s sprint undefeated in the first two races of the series.
But on an above-freezing afternoon at Auburn Ski Club with a mixture of rain and snow falling sporadically, anything could happen. Fortunately, Sargent had adrenaline and top-notch wax technicians on her side.
For Spring Series, Craftsbury enlisted the help of U.S. Ski Team (USST) service techs Randy Gibbs and Cory Wubbels, along with Eli Brown and the team’s own Nick Brown. On Saturday, two CGRP women and two of its men (Pat O’Brien and Tim Reynolds) made the finals. Sargent toed the line with teammate and U.S. Biathlon A-teamer Susan Dunklee.
To get to that point, Sargent won the qualifier and successive heats thereafter. Suddenly, Randall wasn’t a shoe-in favorite in the final, and the attention turned to Sargent.
“Ida’s a legit classic sprinter,” Randall said. “She’s been top ten on the World Cup; she’s knocked on the door of the podium. When she puts it together, she can be better than me. I knew I had my work cut out for me.”
Sargent kept her energy high as she cruised through the rounds, winning the qualifier by 1.35 seconds, then commanding both her quarterfinal and semifinal.
In her last race of the season, it was the kind of day the Vermont native envisioned. Facing off against two USST teammates in the final, including Sadie Bjornsen (APU), would be the perfect ending despite not feeling well.
Sargent had been fighting a cold since she arrived in Truckee, Calif., and coming off more than four months on the World Cup circuit, she booked an early flight home. She would leave Sunday, giving her all in the classic sprint.
“I think when you have that last little bit of energy, you’re like, ‘You’ve got to go, this is it,’ ” Sargent said. “You can see the finish line.”
Shooting to front of the six-person final from the start, she had every intention of finishing first. Randall tucked behind her, followed by Dunklee and the rest of the field, and they soared down out of the stadium. There, she and Randall took charge and gapped the others.
“My strategy was to try to hang onto her at the start and try to stay close,” Randall said.
Sargent had already beaten her once, in the semifinals, where she led Randall and Bjornsen respectively across the line. Randall made some mental notes for the final, then executed accordingly.
“I saw that Ida had really fast skis and got away early,” Randall recalled. “I knew the key to being able to stay with her in the final was just work really hard at the beginning to get in her draft, otherwise it would be too much gap to make up at the end.”
After qualifying in fourth behind Sargent, Sophie Caldwell (Stratton Mountain School T2 Team) and Bettina Gruber (Swiss National Team), respectively, Randall asked her wax techs for more kick.
“I felt a little bit like a fish flopping around on the deck,” Randall said. “But we got the skis dialed in for the rounds.”
She won her quarterfinal ahead of Sweden’s Maria Nordström (University of Colorado) and fellow USST member Liz Stephen (Burke Mountain Academy). Randall and Nordström advanced to the semis, where they met Sargent, Rosie Brennan (APU), Jessie Diggins (SMST2/USST), and Sophie Caldwell (SMST2).
“It was kind of crazy how our semifinal was basically as U.S. Ski Team time trial,” Randall said. “It was a good success just to make it past the semifinal, really.”
That kind of challenge, especially with Sargent, fueled her. Drafting Sargent for the first half of the final, Randall attacked on the last climb. Sargent switched to another track, attempting to hold on as Randall accelerated to the finish. Winning by several seconds, it was Randall’s third-straight victory of SuperTour Finals. Sargent took second ahead of Bjornsen, who was a few more meters back in third.
“To be chasing someone down in the final … it’s gonna make us all better,” said Randall, referring to her USST teammates. “[We’ll] have a better chance of getting a medal in a team sprint in classic and just being more competitive on the World Cup.”
The win puts Randall 1 minute and 19 seconds ahead of Bjornsen for the last race of SuperTour Finals: Monday’s freestyle hill-climb pursuit at Sugar Bowl Resort.
“Classic sprints are really hit or miss for me, especially today with challenging waxing conditions, I just never quite know,” Randall said. “The feeling so far the week have been pretty good so I was optimistic and positive.”
To start the week, Sargent placed 13th in Thursday’s freestyle prologue and sixth in Friday’s 10 k classic mass start.
“It was tough going up against the sprint World Cup champion, but I’m happy to be there,” Sargent said of Saturday’s silver. “It was a fun way to end the season.”
After notching her third podium of the week, Bjornsen said the hill climb would be “interesting.”
“I’m not much of a climber, let alone on skate skis, so we’ll see,” she said.
As for the sprint final, Bjornsen said she made a poor lane choice out of the start and fell off the back early.
“It was so wet,” Bjornsen said of the snow in the stadium. “From there, I just tried to catch back up to these girls. … I wish I could’ve really been up there or started with them. I was catching them but there wasn’t enough time.”
With the two steep climbs near the end, she said the course was challenging, but fair.
“It’s more about the strongest person on the top of the hill instead of who has the fastest skis,” she said. “It’s fun in that regard.”
Brennan, who finished fourth in the final, noticed the difference in ski speed as she watched Randall and Sargent take off. Unable to catch them on the downhill, she and teammate Bjornsen battled for third.
“Sadie put on a nice move on the [last] uphill and that was sort of that,” Brennan said.
Plagued by a back injury, Brennan said she lacked some confidence heading into the sprint.
“I skied probably way too aggressively in my quarter and semi just because I didn’t know if I could do it or not,” the former USST member explained. “I didn’t have as much in the final as I would’ve liked, but it was really good to be able to ski with Kikkan and Ida and those girls that I haven’t raced against this year.”
Fifth-place finisher Maria Graefnings, who graduated from the University of Utah last year and returned to Sweden for her first World Cup top 30 this season, was also happy to have made the final. A two-time NCAA champion who placed 28th in the 10 k freestyle World Cup opener in Gällivare, Sweden, the 27-year-old said sprints weren’t usually her thing.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, just go for it,’ ” she said. “I was debating klister or zeros. It was a little bit tricky waxing today, but I’m super happy with the result. I was like, ‘OK, I better hold on, try to stick to them as long as I can.’ ”
Dunklee followed Graefnings into the finish for sixth, completely drained by the back-to-back heats. Like her quarterfinal and semi, the biathlete charged hard to lead out of the start. In the final, she said that tactic didn’t work.
“I fell off fast,” Dunklee said. “I didn’t have much left in the tank at that point. I think I overdid it a little in the semis, but I made it to the final so I’m pretty damn excited about that.”
Excited to be among a strong showing of U.S. biathletes, with Annelies Cook and Hannah Dreissigacker racing in her semifinal as well, Dunklee was also thrilled at the chance to race Randall.
“It was a very special moment standing on that start line … and thinking, ‘Man this is a moment I can be proud of,’ ” Dunklee said.
Tracing her success to her running career at Dartmouth College, she was thankful the course involved a lot of striding and that her skis aided her along.
“Our techs just nailed it today,” she said. “I had some of the fastest skis going down that hill and then I also had plenty of kick to get up so it can’t really get much better than that.”
– Audrey Mangan contributed reporting