Kikkan Randall has now recorded three medals in five skate sprints.
But if the enigmatic American sprint star is tired, she sure isn’t showing it, as she blasted to her first World Cup victory of the season Saturday, in a skate sprint in rainy Liberec, Czech Republic.
Randall took advantage of fast skis, an advantageous situation, and a strong finishing kick to secure the win, crossing the line 0.5 seconds ahead of her closest competitor – enough time to raise her arms in the arm to celebrate before crossing the line.
“I just thought about getting through one round at a time,” Randall said in an interview with FasterSkier following the race, “it was pretty cool to be able to have the time to enjoy the win.”
After finishing 21st in the grueling Tour de Ski, which ended less than a week ago, Randall started her day hot – she qualified third, 4 seconds back of the winner, Marit Bjoergen (NOR). Randall then cruised through her quarter-final looking comfortable, dispatching top Italian sprinter Arianna Follis easily.
In her semi-final, Randall drew some tough competition, including Slovenia’s Petra Majdic, who won both sprints during the recent Tour de Ski and Hanna Falk (SWE), who qualified just ahead of Randall.
Randall’s semi-final was the second of two, and all the skiers had watched the first one, and saw the unthinkable outcome – Bjoergen had finished third, getting caught up in traffic in the finishing lanes.
“We definitely knew she had come third,” said Randall, “I think everybody was focused on laying down a fast time, because for sure she’s a tough competitor.”
As a result, the pace was high but again Randall looked in control, and stayed out of trouble on the slick down hills, relying on her low tuck and a fast pair skis to move her up the field, and then skiing strong in the finish stretch to win the semi-final, and the skiers who finished third and fourth did so in a time fast enough to eliminate Bjoergen.
“That downhill [the main one on the course] was bumpy, icy, it seemed to change every time you went down it, so you never knew what to expect,” said Randall, “You just kind of had to be really solid on your skis and be aware of what was going on around you.”
While Bjoergen was out, the final was not going to be a cruise – Falk, Majdic, and Norwegians Celine Brun-Lie and Maiken Caspersen Falla were all skiing well. After getting out to a good start, Randall made use of her quick skis again to move up on the downhill. Randall made sure to ski strong, but stay in second position, saving energy until the last uphill, where she hammered up and around the corner, and then dug deep and headed for the finish line.
Randall crossed the line with room to spare, as Falk finished second, and Brun-Lie, a 22 year-old Norwegian who finished fourth in Dusseldorf rounded out the podium, leaving Majdic fourth.
“I just felt so strong on that final stretch every time, and so it was great to come around Hanna [Falk] and feel strong and be unchallenged to the line,” Randall said.
And there might be a reason Randall was not pressed as hard as she could have been going to the line, as Bjoergen, the fastest qualifier on the day by a large margin didn’t make the final. Randall herself would have liked Bjoergen to be in the mix.
“Heading into Oslo it would have been nice to have another chance to race head to head with her,” said Randall. “Even if it would have cost me the win, I was feeling good today, so maybe I could have taken her on for real.
According to United States Ski Team (USST) Head Coach Chris Grover, the sprint course Saturday was the exact same as the one Randall collected a silver medal on in 2009, when Liberec hosted World Championships.
While the Americans weren’t specifically targeting Liberec for a good result, both Grover and Randall knew that it could be a good day.
“She [Randall] is just in great sprint form this year,” said Grover.
The conditions were set to make the race interesting as well. In the week leading up to the World Cup, Liberec was soaked with rain, making the surrounding hills bare, and the snow on course warm, and heavily salted by the race organizers, according to Grover.
After ending the Tour de Ski just six days ago, Randall has had a very light week – two rest days, and two easy skis made sure she bounced back, and got rid of the “zombie” feeling she had after the Tour.
As she is the only American woman currently on the World Cup circuit, Randall will skip tomorrow’s Team Sprint, and head back to the US for a solid training block in preparation for World Championships.
“Last year I was at home 3 weeks leading into the Olympics, and I came on strong at the Olympics, and had a strong rest of the season after that, so I’m really confident in the plan we’ve developed for peaking,” she said, “I think the best is still to come.”
While American Kikkan Randall was collecting her first podium of the season, the Canadian women quietly recorded a decent day of their own.
Dasha Gaiazova qualified 12th, while Chandra Crawford, continuing her bounce back season and on a quest to regain consistent qualifying form, was 19th.
“I feel happy,” said Dasha Gaiazova in an interview with FasterSkier after the race, “I felt really good in the qualifier.”
Despite Gaiazova feeling confident with her skiing, she and Crawford were placed in the same quarter-final, a move that Gaiazova described as “a bit of a curveball.”
The two Canadians were matched up with Hanna Falk (SWE) the second fastest qualifier of the day, and things went badly for Crawford on the first big downhill, as she got her tips tangled up and fell, dropping her immediately out of contention on the fast course, and ending her day in 26th position.
Gaiazova stayed on her feet, but had to settle for third in the quarter-final, but as a result, finished her day 14th, her best placing thus far this season, and the Canadian has now qualified in three of the four World Cup sprint starts she has had this season.
Gaiazova and Crawford are both fresh from North America – Gaiazova raced the NorAm in Thunder Bay, Ontario before hopping on a plane to Europe, where she and Crawford headed to Ramsau, Austria. The two took advantage of “bluebird sky, perfect weather, and perfecting skiing” and adjusted quickly.
With just three techs and no coaches, the Canadians have a small crew, but Gaiazova said she was glad that the coaching staff was able to make it possible for the team to race in Liberec, and then moving on to the World Cup in Otepaa, Estonia, as well. Currently wax tech Yves Bilodeau is filling in as coach, which Gaiazova said was a fun change.
“The first item on our pre-race meeting was whether or not we wanted to go out for pizza after our race today,” she said, laughing.
Gaiazova and Crawford have already teamed up for a sprint relay medal once this season, a bronze in Dusseldorf, Germany. On Sunday they will combine forces once again, this time on classic skis, and their primary goal has already been achieved.
“We wanted to make the final tomorrow, but there are only 13 teams, so they’re just running the final, not two heats,” Gaiazova said.