A third of the way through the finals in Saturday’s classic sprint in Madawaska, Ida Sargent (CGRP) was doing something that nobody else had done over the last two days: giving Kikkan Randall (APU) a run for her money.
At the bottom of the course’s main climb, Sargent shot past Randall out of the draft, then went stride for stride with the Alaskan up the first half of the hill. Randall ultimately pulled away over the top to win by three seconds, but Sargent kept things interesting for a little bit longer than anyone would have predicted at the beginning of the day.
Holly Brooks (APU) was five seconds behind Sargent to take the last podium place.
“She was skiing the transitions really well and definitely making me work really hard for it,” Randall said of Sargent. “It kind of came down to that last gradual rise, but I wasn’t letting down, because I knew she could be right there.”
It was the second time this year that the pair had matched up in a classic sprint—the first had been at U.S. Nationals in Anchorage in January, where Randall won and Sargent was third, five and a half seconds back. She was closer this time.
“Those have been our two opportunities this year, so it would be cool to be able to get together more and push each other,” Randall said. “Because if she can stay close, then maybe she belongs on the World Cup—which would be cool, to have a sprint partner.”
Indeed, Sargent was the only woman close to being on par with Randall today. The Alaskan cruised through her first two heats, leading wire-to-wire in both of them, and never was threatened with elimination.
Sargent had to work a little harder for it, but also won her first two rounds—setting things up for their showdown in the finals after the pair took the top spots in qualifying.
Sargent’s success this season has been no surprise, according to U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb.
“Ida’s been plugged into the pipeline since the early ages of Bill Koch,” Whitcomb said. “It’s always been clear that she’s got the talent and the drive—she can just really hammer, and things are starting to just fall right in line for her.”
“It’s also really beneficial for Kikkan and some of these other girls, who may have found that they’re now being pushed by somebody that is showing she may have some world-class potential,” he said.
One girl whose success was a surprise today, however, was 15-year-old Heather Mooney, a tall J2 from Stratton.
She was fifth place in the qualifier, ahead of veterans like Katie Ronsse (APU) and Kristina Strandberg (XC Oregon), then finished second in her quarterfinal heat–she caught a break when Nicole DeYong (SVSEF) went down while in the lead. That gave Mooney the right to rub shoulders in a semifinal with Olympians Holly Brooks (APU) and Randall.
She never expected to be skiing at, or even near, their level.
“I figured they’d dust me, and I’d barely make it,” she said. “In each heat, I surprised myself.”
Mooney held her own in that semifinal, though, ending up five seconds behind Randall and just one behind Brooks. That assured her a spot in the A-final, where she ultimately finished sixth.
Stratton Coach Sverre Caldwell said that Mooney trains hard, and has also benefited from a rivalry with another New Englander junior, Corey Stock (CSU).
“It’s perfect, because they’re the same age, and they butt heads,” he said. “They pretty much take turns winning—they can’t get lazy.”
The result won’t be a big motivator, Caldwell added, because “she doesn’t need much of a big motivator.”
“But it’s a nice confidence-builder for sure,” he said, “because she’s worked really hard.”
After Saturday’s racing, Randall has a 1:30 lead in the SuperTour Finals mini-tour over CXC’s Rebecca Dussault. She’ll get that much of a head-start in Sunday’s hill climb in Fort Kent. (Sargent would be in second, 1:11 back and ahead of Dussault, but she said yesterday that the classic sprint was her last competition of the week.)
The last time Randall did an uphill climb was in a similar event in 2004 in Winter Park, Colorado—at altitude.
“We started at like 9,500 feet and finished above 10,000,” Randall said. “And I remember starting and just dying the whole way up…It will be a little nicer to be at sea-level.”
The APU team examined the course this afternoon, so Randall should know exactly how much pain is in store. It will be her eighth race in 12 days.
“We’ll see what’s left in the tank,” she said.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.