Out of a crowd of 20,000 people watching at the 2011 World Ski Championships, there can’t have been more than a few dozen who were disappointed when American Kikkan Randall crashed out of the women’s sprint.
After all, the race was in Oslo, and as a big favorite, Randall was one of the only athletes expected to threaten the hometown favorite, Norwegian superwoman Marit Bjoergen.
So when Randall slipped on one of Ida Ingemarsdotter’s (SWE) skis and went down halfway through her quarterfinal heat, there weren’t many crestfallen spectators out there. But there were still a few—namely, all the Americans in attendance.
“It took the wind out of us,” said Randy Gibbs, one of the U.S. Ski Team’s service staff.
The defending silver medalist, and the current leader of the women’s World Cup sprint standings, Randall had more than just a shot at the podium on Thursday.
But while she was a heavy favorite, the sprint is the most unpredictable event in the World Championships program—where athletes can go from contenders to pretenders in the space of a single stride. With more than 60 World Cup starts under her belt, and a race-ending tangle as recently as January, Randall knew that nothing was guaranteed in Oslo.
“With all the talk, it’s fun to be the big favorite coming into today, but I also knew that it’s sprint racing, and anything can happen,” she said. “Unfortunately, it did.”
For the handful of U.S. ski fans that had found a way to watch Thursday’s race, Randall’s mishap surely left all them asking the same question: “What happened?”
The Alaskan had come over the top of the sprint course’s big hill, roughly halfway through the race, in decent position, just behind Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla and Norway’s Celine Brun-Lie.
“I was kind of thinking, right as I was about to tuck into third, it was going perfectly, because I felt like there was a lot of moving around left on the course,” Randall said.
But she was still neck-and-neck with one of Kalla’s teammates, Ida Ingemarsdotter, and as the women rounded a righthand corner on their way back into the stadium, their skis crossed, and Randall was thrown off kilter before she knew what was happening.
”One moment it was going really well, and the next moment I was going down backwards, and I was going fast,” she said. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t turn it around.”
Jessie Diggins, the other American in Randall’s heat, was trailing, and witnessed the aftermath.
“I just looked up and saw her facing me, and I was like ‘What? This isn’t right,’” she said.
By the time Randall got her body and equipment sorted out and facing the right direction, the other skiers in her heat were long gone, leaving her to trail in a full 12-and-a-half seconds behind. Her final placing was 26th—her first time missing the finals in a skate sprint this year.
“It’s a bummer. Kikkan was looking really strong in the prelim. Going out in the start in the quarters, she was looking really strong as well, and I though, ‘okay, today is a good day,’” said her coach, Erik Flora, who was present in Oslo. “It looked like her body was in the right place; it looked like it was going to happen. And then—that’s sprint racing. Just a little misfortune.”
It wasn’t the way the day was supposed to end, but whether it was tight spots on the course, athletes taking chances in pursuit of medals, or some other reason, the racing on Thursday was especially chippy. No fewer than three North Americans—Alex Harvey, Chandra Crawford, and Randall—had their hopes derailed by physical contact.
The close-quarters racing was a shock for Diggins, in her first-ever World Cup sprint heat—which in addition to Randall also saw Norwegian Celine Brun-Lie go down.
“ I know racing’s aggressive, but I just saw so many people go down today,” Diggins said.
Should Randall have done anything differently? Flora didn’t think so—he said that she skied a “great race.”
“Kikkan’s usually really good with [avoiding crashes], and I think the thing is that sometimes, you just can’t help it. It just happens,” he said. “I don’t really look at anything being different. She skied well, and she got stuck.”
For her part, Randall acknowledged that she may have erred by biding her time and staying behind Brun-Lie and Kalla. But the Oslo sprint course was a challenging one, and it saw many athletes fade hard after leading early.
“For sure, the closer you are to the front, generally, you stay out of trouble more. So, looking back, maybe I should have made a harder push to be up in the top two,” Randall said. “But I was actually feeling really good about my position. I thought I skied really well on the hill…and I was kind of saving it for the end. Risky strategy, though.”
Randall still has more racing left in Oslo—her next event is the 10 k classic on Monday—and Flora said that her fitness “is one more step more than it’s been.”
Realistically, though, Thursday’s race was her only chance at a medal in Oslo—she’ll have to wait until the 2013 World Championships in Italy for her next shot.
The result no doubt stings, and as Randall acknowledged, “I’m sure I’ll play that moment over and over in my mind.”
But she knew from the beginning that the day wouldn’t be easy, and the fact that she could still crack a smile within a few minutes of the race was a testament to her perspective.
“You know, a race like this is too hard to pin all your hopes on,” she said. “I gave it what I had today.”
Link to full results. More on the North Americans and the international women to follow.
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.