With the season winding down and only World Cup Finals remaining on the calendar for sprinters, Kikkan Randall produced her best classic result of the year on Wednesday with a fifth-place finish in Drammen, Norway. She led the American women in the city sprint; Sadie Bjornsen also qualified for the heats and finished 30th.
Randall in another sprint final — it may seem like well-worn territory for an athlete whose list of season accomplishments already includes World Championship gold and a crystal sprint globe. Yet fifth is still somewhat of a season milestone for Randall — it marks first time she has made it to a classic final all season, and it was also the product of a bit of a lucky break. She scraped into qualification for the heats in 29th and subsequently moved on from the semifinals as a lucky loser in the heat that included eventual race-winner, Justyna Kowalczyk (POL).
“It’s my best classic result from this year for sure, and last year I had a fourth in Kuusamo, so this sits right in there with a better classic finish for me,” Randall said.
Ever the competitor, however, she looked back on the race wishing she had done a few things differently. Fitness-wise, she thinks her sprint form is getting stronger as the season comes to a close and in hindsight saw opportunities to have moved up that she didn’t take.
“I wish I had skied it tactically a little differently,” Randall said. “I knew Kowalczyk would set a fast pace and I knew I could tuck in and conserve energy early. That final finish stretch is so crucial every time and that’s where it was working really well for me. The mistake I made is I wasn’t aggressive enough around those final corners down at the bottom of the course. I kept trying to take a really wide line because I was trying to find faster snow, but I ended up skiing by myself and didn’t set myself up in a good enough position for that last bit to challenge for the podium. So I’m a little disappointed with that.”
Even so, Randall felt positive about the result as she left the Drammen venue.
“The feelings were good today and I think I’m feeling stronger and stronger now,” she said. “That’s a good sign, so I was pretty happy with it.”
The next race on her schedule is a low-stakes exhibition sprint on a snow-filled track & field stadium in Oslo. From there the World Cup season ends in Stockholm and Falun, Sweden, after which she and her teammates fly back to the U.S. for SuperTour Finals.
“I’m glad it’s at a point in the year when we can just race,” Randall said. “It’s a lot, like every other day. It’s been a long season and I’m feeling like it’s wrapping up just in time.”
The second and only other American to make the women’s heats on Wednesday was Bjornsen, who recently finished a career-high weekend in Lahti, Finland. In Drammen she didn’t expect to make it through qualification, even though she hoped to somehow earn enough points for World Cup finals. But make it to the heats she did as the 26th qualifier. Bjornsen later finished her day in the quarterfinals, placing sixth in her heat and 30th overall. The performance was good enough for a 54th overall World Cup ranking as of Wednesday, four places and 14 points shy of the top-50 cut-off for Stockholm and Falun.
“I’m happy because I haven’t qualified for a classic sprint yet this year, and it was an extremely challenging day of picking skis and finding the wax,” Bjornsen said. “I was quite happy to make it into the heats because I wasn’t expecting it. My quarterfinal wasn’t exactly as I would hope, but it was still fun.”
She went up against Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (FIN), Linn Soemskar (SWE), Nicole Fessel (GER), Dasha Gaiazova (CAN) and Hanna Kolb (GER) in the quarterfinals. At the top of the course Bjornsen led the five other women, but on the descent she lost ground to them and fell back to sixth, where she ultimately finished the heat.
“I think it was hard to pick the right ski today, I don’t know,” Bjornsen said. “I definitely didn’t do that do the greatest of my ability. It’s so sugary you feel like you want a lot of kick because it’s hard to find your kick, but then I think it maybe slows it down… I felt it as the whole pack went by. I was like, ‘Well, darn.’”
Ski selection for the sugary conditions in Drammen on Wednesday is a skill Bjornsen says she needs to work on for the future. Even though she didn’t make World Cup finals with her sprint result she wasn’t too discouraged, as reaching the cutoff only became a goal after her career-high weekend in Lahti.
“I went into this year having scored two World Cup points in my life; it wasn’t even a goal of mine to make World Cup finals,” she said. “After having a great weekend last weekend it’s like that confirmation to motivate me even more for next year, like hey: that is a possibility to make World Cup finals and that’s what I should be gunning for.”
Bjornsen’s next stop is OPA Cup finals, which take place in Italy on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Randall and Bjornsen were the only two American women to make the heats. Holly Brooks and Sophie Caldwell just missed qualifying in 34th and 35th, respectively. Ida Sargent was 48th, Rosie Brennan finished 52nd and Jessie Diggins was 55th.