Oslo, Norway – Marit Bjoergen (NOR) has been nigh on unstoppable since the beginning of February, and has won every World Cup race since the Olympics. Today was no different though Kikkan Randall nearly pulled off the upset, leading the Norwegian star into the homestretch of the freestyle sprint in Oslo.
Bjoergen won both races at the famed Holmenkollen Ski Stadium, and showed no ill effects from yesterday’s 30km. The sprint victory did not come easily, but at the end, she showed the strength that won her five Olympic medals.
And with wins by Bjoergen becoming rote, the story of the day belonged to Randall, the silver medalist in the freestyle sprint at World Championships last year.
Randall has quietly been on fire since the start of the Olympics, but has not had an opportunity to race her premier event – the skate sprint. She performed exceptionally well in the Olympics with great efforts and results in every event she entered. Her 8th in the classic sprint was a career-best.
But the last time she got to strap on her skate skis for an individual sprint was nearly three months ago in Davos, Switzerland.
She took advantage of that opportunity today, showing the poise that allowed her to become the first American woman to win a World Cup race and a championship medal, skiing relaxed and strong toward the front of each of her heats.
Randall qualified in 8th, and according to US Sprint Coach Chris Grover, that is always a good sign.
“Typically when I see her [Randall] qualify in the top-10 in a skate sprint, it means it’s on, she is in good form,” he told FasterSkier.
Randall spent most of the heats toward the front, in either first or second. In the quarterfinals she cruised across the line next to Natalia Korosteleva (RUS) clear of the field after the pair broke away late in the 1.3km loop.
In the semis, she was again matched with Korosteleva, as well as Swedish phenom Hannah Falk, Italian veteran Arianna Follis, Vesna Fabjan (SLO), and Riikka Sarasoja (FIN).
She started strong, moving right into 2nd place behind Falk. Fabjan, riding fast skis, moved up on the flat terrain entering the first big climb. Randall slipped back, to 3rd, then to 4th. But over the top of the next rise she accelerated back up and snuck into 2nd, now behind Korosteleva. Once again the two were able to open a small gap on the field in the homestretch and advance to the finals.
Bjoergen did not have as easy a time. She met Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) in the quarterfinals, and the two finished 1-2 in that heat. They paired again in the semis, with Kowalczyk getting off the line slowly. She attacked aggressively trying to move up, but Anna Olsson (SWE) and Celine Brun-Lie (NOR) controlled the race at the front, with Bjoergen in 3rd.
Advancement for the two favorites was not guaranteed until Brun-Lie appeared to catch a tip entering the big climb causing her to crash into Olsson. The two went down and Bjoergen and Kowalczyk suddenly had the lead and a berth in the finals.
Bjoergen appeared spent after the heat, perhaps showing signs of fatigue form Saturday’s win in the 30km.
Falk made it through as a lucky loser and joined Bjoergen, Kowalczyk, Randall, Korosteleva and Silvana Bucher (SUI), the other lucky loser, in the fight for the podium. Fabjan posted the same time as Falk, but Falk got the nod in the photo finish, and Fabjan was done for the day.
With the exception of Bucher, each of these women have multiple World Cup podiums under their belts, and despite Bjoergen’s recent dominance, any were capable of victory.
Bucher, on the other hand, was a surprise to reach the finals. A majority of her World Cup starts have come in distance races and relays. Until today she had only cracked the top-30 in an individual sprint once before – a 26th against a weak field this year in Rybinsk.
So the stage was set. Randall again got off to a good start, immediately taking the lead.
With major reconstruction on the stadium area, this was the first time any of these athletes had raced what will be next year’s World Championship course.
Getting out to an early lead is very important noted Grover as the middle section of the loop is not wide – just enough room for two skaters abreast. This makes it difficult to pass until the end.
“She [Randall] was always in first or second and with this course, that is very important,” said Grover. “Going out and getting an early lead and holding that lead is really critical.”
Kowalczyk once again was very slow off the line, last place with a small gap to makeup before the race was 10 seconds old. Such a disadvantage does not seem to phase the overall World Cup Champion, and as in the semifinal, she attacked immediately, and had moved into 1st over the top of the first small climb.
Randall was to one side and just behind as Kowalczyk moved. The Pole appeared to bump or step on the American’s pole almost causing Randall to go down. She recovered impressively and did not lose any noticeable ground.
With Bjoergen just behind, Randall attacked on the large climb. She moved by Kowalczyk with Bjoergen just behind. They held their position over the top and through the fast corners.
Kowalczyk uncharacteristically ran out of gas, and could not hold the pace. Korosteleva moved into 3rd. The Russian had quietly maintained good position near Bjoergen, and took advantage as Kowalczyk faded.
The three women came down onto the homestretch clear of the rest of the heat. The finish is fast with a descent into the last flat, and some skiers free skated almost to the line. Randall held her lead onto level ground, but Bjoergen put on a charge that no one could match, skiing away from Randall and Korosteleva.
“I felt quite tired after yesterday’s 30 km and it is great that I also won the sprint,” said Bjoergen. “The crowds here are just amazing and the atmosphere was great.”
Korosteleva closed the small gap on Randall, and the two lunged for the line. It looked closer than it was, and the photo finish camera showed Randall at least a foot in front for her third career World Cup podium.
“We knew she was in awesome shape,” said Grover. “All four of her Olympics were great races for her. They just weren’t in her strongest disciplines. We knew it was totally possible that either her or Newell would be on the podium today.”
Added Randall, “I’m really proud because there are a lot of times out there when other countries look so much better, they have so much support, and it’s easy to get bogged down. But I believed succeeding was possible for so long, so it’s good to show that it wasn’t just a one-time thing, but that we can consistently be on the podium.”
Kowalczyk ended up 4th, clinching her first Sprint Cup title. She already had wrapped up her second consecutive overall World Cup win.
The race had added importance for Randall as her performance moved her up to 39th in the overall World Cup standings. Only the top-50 skiers in the standings and Continental Cup leaders will start the World Cup Finals beginning on Wednesday in Stockholm. Randall had been outside the top-50, but now has a start spot and will compete in Sweden.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.