With 100 meters to go in Sunday’s skate sprint in Davos, Kikkan Randall flew into the stadium in fourth place. A few strong strides brought her close to even with third, and second place even seemed to be within reach.
Enter Justyna Kowalczyk—the wiry Pole with a reputation for provocative statements and questionable tactics. Just as Randall was about slide past, Kowalczyk made an aggressive move to her right, forcing the American to switch lanes and costing her a spot on the podium.
To anyone who was watching, the move was egregious. And the race jury agreed, relegating Kowalczyk to last place in her heat after concluding that she was guilty of obstruction. The decision elevated Randall to third place—her latest inspired result in an muscular early-season campaign, and her second podium in two weekends of racing.
“[I’m] definitely replaying that last 100 meters in my mind over and over, because I felt so strong, and I saw an open lane and I was going for it, and all of a sudden, Kowalczyk came out of nowhere,” Randall told FasterSkier in an interview. “I could have at least fought for second—but that’s sprint racing, and overall, I’m just pretty excited.”
A few seconds after the Kowalczyk-Randall fiasco, Norwegian Marit Bjoergen again crossed the finish line unchallenged, taking her fifth win in six starts this season. Italy’s Arianna Follis was second.
Bjoergen was dominating all day, winning both her quarter- and semifinal heats before dropping the hammer on the course’s big climb in the final, leaving behind a star-studded final that included fellow Norwegian Astrid Jacobsen and Slovenia’s Petra Majdic.
Majdic was the only woman to come within 2.5 seconds of Bjoergen’s qualifying time. Randall was eighth in her preliminary round—the same as her qualifying place in the Dusseldorf sprint last weekend, where she ultimately finished second.
The eighth place on Sunday morning was a good sign, according to U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover.
“Whenever you see her in the top 10 in qualifying, I think that’s a really good indicator that she has…quite a good chance that day of reaching the podium,” he said.
In the heats, Randall was in command, using flawless tactics to win both her quarter- and semifinal rounds. Kowalczyk did most of the hard work each time, with Randall slotting into the draft whenever there was a headwind, using a crisp V1 technique to hold her position on the course’s steep uphill.
“Kowalczyk played beautifully—she took the lead each time. I was able to kind of sit behind her and relax, and make sure I came over the top of that hill strong, to put myself in a good position,” Randall said. “I knew that the steep climb was going to be my advantage if I had clear snow.”
While Randall had to contend with Kowalczyk, last year’s overall World Cup winner, in her first two rounds, the final was another challenge entirely. In addition to Kowalczyk, the heat also featured Bjoergen, with five medals from the Vancouver Olympics; Follis, the 2009 sprint world champion; Majdic, the World Cup sprint champion in 2008 and 2009; and Jacobsen, the 2007 sprint world champion.
“It couldn’t have been any more stacked with experienced women,” Grover said.
Randall had a decent start, coming through the first corner in fourth place, behind Majdic, Follis, and Bjoergen. That order held until the women passed through the stadium after completing their first of two laps. Faced with a long, open straightaway with a headwind, Randall opted to stay in the draft rather than make an attack.
“You saw a lot of people earlier in the heats take the lead, and then fade at the end, so I wanted to conserve and be ready to go hard at the finish,” she said.
Kowalczyk took the opposite approach, making a hard move on the inside that Bjoergen matched, subsequently pulling into the lead. Majdic dropped off as the women turned up the steep hill for the last time, leaving Randall in fourth, still just behind Follis.
On the righthand side, Bjoergen hammered up the climb, with Kowalczyk in her wake. Randall was on the left, ready to try to match Bjoergen’s acceleration—but Follis was in the way.
“I was really surprised. Arianna is usually a really good climber, so as I came into position and got behind her, I had some hopes,” Randall said. “I just felt like I ran into the back of her right away, and I wasn’t able to use my speed right there…I should have made a better move before that, to get myself some clear snow, because it would have been really sweet to go side-by-side with Bjoergen on a V1 climb like that.”
Over the top, Bjoergen pulled away, leaving Kowalczyk, Follis, and Randall to fight for the final three spots on the podium.
As those three descended into the stadium, Follis moved to the far left for the homestretch, with Kowalczyk in the middle and Randall on the right. And as Randall drew even with Kowalczyk, the Pole closed the door, hard.
“It felt like she came right into me,” Randall said. “I tried to fight her for position for a stride or two, but she was able to kind of force me off…She definitely has a reputation as one of those racers that makes questionable moves, and will play kind of dirty, so it’s not surprising that she tried to pull that.”
Randall said she had to check her speed, then switch lanes, by which point she had lost too much momentum to make another surge before the finish line. She said that she might even have been able to pick off Follis for second place if not for Kowalczyk’s antics.
It didn’t take long, though, for the jury to conclude that Kowalczyk had broken the rules—Grover said that officials informed Randall of her improved finish while she was still in the finish pen.
Randall’s podium isn’t final yet: According to Jurg Capol, the cross-country race director for the International Ski Federation, the Polish Ski Association (PSA) still has a 72-hour window to appeal the ruling, after which a three-member appeals commission would have an additional 72 hours to make a ruling.
On Kowalczyk’s official site, a story was posted Sunday night quoting her coach, Alexander Wierietielny, as saying that the PSA would be filing an appeal.
“We have a record of television that confirms our words,” Wierietielny said. “We do not intend to turn tail and leave with our head down.”
However, Capol said it was unlikely that the decision would be overturned in such a case.
“I have no doubt about this,” he told FasterSkier in an interview. “Even if there is an appeal, the appeal commission will confirm the decision of the jury.”
If the result stands, Randall will have three podiums in her last three World Cup skate sprint starts—and regardless, she has her best-ever start to the season.
“It’s fun to just be in the mix, and to know that every year, I just keep getting closer and closer to ultimately where I want to be,” 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.