Kikkan Randall set out in Falun, Sweden, on Sunday with a very concrete task in front of her. She had already crossed one major goal off her list in claiming the World Cup sprint title in Stockholm, but in order to hang on to her third-place position in the overall standings she needed to finish 15th or higher in the last stage of World Cup Finals. Marit Bjoergen (NOR) threatened to score 200 points in the process of winning the mini tour, but 32 points from Randall would be enough for the American to remain on the third rung of the podium for the season finale.
With the best distance form she’s demonstrated in a long while, Randall made sure it wasn’t even close. Starting from the 15th position in the mini tour she climbed up eight places over the course of the freestyle pursuit to finish seventh, post the second-fastest time of the day behind Therese Johaug (NOR), and make history yet again for the U.S. in finishing in the top-three in the overall World Cup, a first for the country.
Her teammates followed suit with strong results, too. Stephen skied the sixth-fastest time to finish 16th in the tour while Jessie Diggins and Holly Brooks skied together to climb to 26th and 27th, respectively, in the pursuit with the 12th- and 15th-fastest splits. Ida Sargent finished 37th in her first World Cup Finals appearance and Rosie Brennan maintained her starting position to end up 43rd.
“I feel great,” Randall said after climbing down from the podium. “It’s been a long season and a lot has happened, and I really wanted to cap it off with a strong performance today and hang onto that third spot. And I did, so I’m just super happy and looking forward to celebrating with my team and coming back and celebrating in the U.S.”
U.S. Ski Team women’s coach called Randall’s achievement “one of the biggest accomplishments of her life.”
She made it look easy, though there was no guarantee on Sunday morning that she would be able to pull it off. Randall’s distance skiing has been slightly off since before World Championships, but on the last day of the season it became apparent that she was back to feeling normal.
In the pursuit-style format she started 2:52 down from the mini-tour leader and within 25 seconds of the next five women in front of her. Randall’s game plan included an aggressive start in order to catch the group in front of her and as she sought to keep Bjoergen at a safe distance in the points.
“I knew that I needed to be in the top 15 today to fight for my third place in the overall, and I knew there was a chance to get up to the top 10 if I was aggressive in the start and made it to the next group,” Randall said. “I made it my strategy to go out and try to catch that group right away, and I was actually surprised at how quickly I got into that group.”
After she caught the athletes in front of her she skied safely in twelfth in the group until the final climb up an abbreviated Mördarbakken, where she made a move to the front and left her nearest competitors behind her.
“The last big hill I decided to make a move and I wasn’t sure, with the shortened Mördarbakken, if there’d be enough space,” Randall said. “But I was able to break up the pack a little bit and then coming into the stadium I saw [Anne] Kylloenen, and so I was able to pick up one more place before the finish. I felt strong and good out there and, yeah: it went just as planned.”
With her distance fitness coming back to her in the last World Cup of the year, Randall almost wished there were more races left in the season.
“This is certainly a very different feeling from what I had at world championships in that 10 k skate, and I think my distance form is coming back up again,” she said. “I mean, in some ways it’s probably a shame the season’s done — although we do have five more races at SuperTour Finals and 30 k Nationals. So I’m hoping a nice week away from racing will be a nice rest and then come in strong for those races.”
Stephen, whose time-of-day split was only 14 seconds behind Randall’s, capped off her season on a high note as well. The pack that Randall skied in was “a little bit too far away to catch,” but she finished feeling good about the result and being done with the World Cup season.
“It’s definitely a good way to end the season,” Stephen said. “I skied for sure the best I could today and it was fun to try and go catch some people.”
Stephen caught the three people in front of her within the first 1.4 k and skied in 17th behind Sweden’s Anna Haag for much of race before passing her in the final kilometers.
“I didn’t feel quite as sparky as I did a few weeks ago in Val di Fiemme or Holmenkollen last week, certainly the fatigue is starting to build, but I don’t feel bad,” Stephen said. “I’ve had seasons where at this point I’m so done, and I don’t feel that way.”
Behind Stephen, Diggins and Brooks combined forces and helped put four Americans total in the top 30. The duo worked together with Italy’s Deborah Agreiter for the middle sections of the race, taking turns pulling each other along, and in the end finished back-to-back in 27th and 28th, about 4:30 back from the leaders.
Diggins started the pursuit in 38th and skied the 12th-fastest split in order to climb into the top 30 and finish her World Cup season on a high note.
“[Today] was one of the most fun races,” Diggins said. “I got to ski with Holly for most of it, I spent the first lap catching up with her and [Agreiter], and the then the three of us worked together…and we just started reeling people in.”
After a “disappointing” classic race on Saturday, Diggins was happy to know she could still post one of the fastest distance times in the field.
“It’s a good confidence boost to end the season, for sure,” she said.
Brooks felt the same, and half wished the race could have kept going past 10 k.
“I think if we had one more lap we could have gotten another couple people, so I had a great time out there,” she said. “It was really nice end on a high note after struggling a little bit yesterday.”
Sargent and Brennan, who finished 38th and 43rd, respectively, in the mini tour, wished a few things had gone differently on Sunday, but in the minutes following the podium ceremony they were both pleased to be finished with the season.
“I made it,” Sargent said. “It was a distance skate race which is always pretty tough for me. I’m pretty tired, so I’m just happy to be done and to be here and celebrating with the team for the great season that we’ve all had.”
Brennan had hoped to stay with the women she started with, but even though they got away from her she was able to maintain her 43rd position in the final standings.
“It wasn’t so bad,” she reasoned. “I guess I was a little bummed to come over here and not be feeling my best and having struggles with my back, so that was a little disappointing, but at the same time any way I can get the experience is worth it, particularly at the end of the year.”
As a group, the U.S. women finished fifth in the Nation’s Cup to help the team end up sixth in the overall competition behind Norway, Russia, Sweden, Finland and Germany. Athletes and coaches had their eyes on those standings all season, and after watching the top teams be recognized on Sunday Whitcomb wasn’t shy in saying he wants to bring his athletes to that podium in the future.
“We just got out of the awards ceremony and it was really cool,” he said. “They called Kikkan up there and the Nation’s Cup and our team sat around and watched all that… It’s an important thing I think for the team to see, myself included, because it’s something we all aspire to moving forward together so that we can maybe one day win one of those team awards.”
The U.S. women have hit many high notes this season, reaching nearly every goal they set for themselves and putting every team member in the top-10 on the World Cup at some point in the season. All six athletes will participate in a Swedish Fast & Female event on Monday before heading back home.
Asked what part of the season was most memorable for her, Randall was hard-pressed to choose just one highlight.
“It’s a hard question,” she said. “A little girl gave me a picture to autograph today as I was walking out, and it was of me holding the flag in Quebec. And [I’m] thinking about the world champs win, and to finish off here — there’s just been so many good memories this season. It was really cool just to see the whole team take another step up. Last September I was first dealing with the injury and I wasn’t sure what was going to be possible. This turned out even better than I could have imagined.”