Before the 4 x 5 k relay in La Clusaz, France, on Sunday, the American women had few days on the World Cup where someone didn’t have a great result. There have been career-bests and historic finishes left and right, and with incredible depth to the team this year, one person’s off day has often presented someone else with a turn in the limelight. When Kikkan Randall felt flat in the classic race on Saturday, Liz Stephen posted her personal best result in the event.
Sunday was a reminder that not every race can be success story, something that the team looked at with a mixture of frustration, disappointment and optimism. The team of Holly Brooks, Randall, Stephen and Jessie Diggins finished ninth out of nine relay teams in La Clusaz, 3:52 behind Norway I’s winning time of 57:05.4. It wasn’t the result any of them had hoped for, particularly after their historic third-place finish in Gallivare, Sweden, at the beginning of the season. But all four athletes took solace in knowing that when they are on form, they can do much better.
“Although it was frustrating not to feel great today for all four of us, we know that we didn’t have a great day, we weren’t in there,” Randall said. “It’d be one thing if we went out there and went, ‘Oh, I skied with everything I had and felt great. Oh, shoot, we’re still ninth.’ We know today was just a bad day.”
Things first went sideways 200 meters into the relay, when Ida Ingemarsdotter (SWE) and Heidi Weng (NOR) tangled right in front of Brooks and she had no choice but to collide with them.
“It was unavoidable,” Brooks said. “After the crash we all had to sprint back up to the pack and the pace was a bit too much for me. My body, legs especially, flooded and I had a hard time for the entire race after that.”
The crash caused Brooks to lose the pack and her groove before the race had really begun, and it had a ripple effect on the team for the rest of the race.
“Often times I think teams respond that way,” USST women’s coach Matt Whitcomb said. “If one person’s off, that may mean something’s off for the whole team.”
Brooks briefly latched back onto the back of the pack, but dug herself into a hole to do it. At the end of her leg the U.S. was 1:38 down. Randall left the exchange zone all alone, as did Stephen and Diggins in the subsequent exchanges.
A combination of factors led to the women’s difficulty on Sunday. There was Brooks’ early fall, and altitude played a part — Randall, for example, had been at that elevation for only two days. Some were coming from a hard training period. But each of them thought the hardest part was skiing “in no-man’s land.”
“That was definitely tough today, because if you could be fighting with someone it helps to keep that tempo up, so skiing alone was a little challenging,” Randall said.
Even so, the women kept going, and it was their tenacity that made them most proud looking back on the race.
“It’s hard to make up time and stay highly motivated when you’re skiing alone, but our teammates and coaches were awesome cheering out there, reminding us why it’s important to keep going and not give up. I’m proud of the team’s efforts and how everyone kept fighting,” Diggins said.
Though it was a tough result to swallow for a team that expects great things of itself, the Americans were able to put it in perspective.
“They can’t all be amazing ones, and we have had a fair share of great ones so far this year already and are hoping for more in the coming month,” Stephen said. “I am really proud of the effort we put forward today; even though we were behind early on, we all fought as hard as possible.”
According to Whitcomb, the women’s squad was upbeat and smiling when they stopped by the wax cabin after their cool down.
“The vibe is the same as it was in Gallivare. I’m really encouraged to see that,” he said. “How we feel about today or about the result we wanted to get doesn’t really matter. What we plan to do from here matters.”