The American women have had highs and lows at World Championships in Oslo this week, packing three finishers in the top 30 in both of the first two races but also watching Kikkan Randall’s medal hopes in the sprint evaporate in a crash. And while the U.S. made the final in the team sprint and placed ninth in the relay, neither of those performances were quite as good as some were hoping for.
On Saturday, they had one more chance to prove that their team could deliver the results they had dreamed of on this, the biggest stage skiing has to offer. With tens of thousands of fans cheering them on, Randall, Holly Brooks, Morgan Arritola, and Liz Stephen set out in the 30 k skate.
Stephen in particular had high hopes, saying that she knew the course “fit” her strengths.
She wasn’t wrong: Stephen led the U.S. with a 16th-place finish, and all four women made it into the top 25. While Randall is one of the best sprinters in the world and Stephen and Arritola have had strong performances in the last few years, it was the best collection of results by a full four-member squad in recent memory, especially in distance racing.
And for Stephen, the result came despite getting a slow start. On the first climb, she was far behind her other teammates.
“I had as usual not a great start,” Stephen said. “So I spent a lot of time just catching up. But… this morning I kind of assumed I would have a slow start, and that I was just going to chase right off the bat and make sure that I got on a pack that I wanted to be on. If you lose it in the beginning, it’s really hard to catch it later. I figured that I’d rather blow up halfway through and have not such a good result, but have a really good effort. I’m either going to hold on, or I’m going to blow up. I don’t want to do in between today.”
Luckily for Stephen, despite skiing hard for the first five kilometers and snaking her way though the crowded field, she did not “blow up”. After making up ground early on, she hung tight, and even passed a fading Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland, who medaled earlier this week. It wasn’t until the last few kilometers that she appeared to tire.
“It worked out for me today,” she said. “There were moments that were pretty difficult. But it was good.”
At the finish, her result was one spot better than the 17th-place finish she notched at the same event in Liberec in 2009.
“I’m really happy with it,” she said. “I skied as best I could today, and in terms of U.S. results it was a really solid day as well, so I think we’re all pretty pleased.”
While Stephen left her American teammates behind, they finished only a few spots lower than her on the results sheet after working together for much of the race.
“We were coming for you,” Randall joked to Stephen at the finish.
The three women were hoping to catch Stephen, but all they could do was close down the gap slightly over the last few kilometers as Stephen tired.
“Liz made a smart move to go when she did,” she explained. “We got a little bit comfortable in the pack we were in.”
“At some point the pace felt really comfortable out there and at times even slow,” she said. “I think sometimes you get settled in your pack, and you look way ahead of you and you can’t see anyone, there’s sometimes less incentive to really push the pace, because you’re kind of thinking about your tactic against the people you’re skiing with.”
Nevertheless, the women seemed happy to have raced together.
“That was cool,” Randall said. “It was great because we all had kind of stronger parts, Morgan would take the lead on the uphill and set a really good tempo, and then Holly and I would switch on the flats a little bit, so it was just really fun. I was really looking forward to racing with those guys because I know they are really strong in this type of event, so it was great to be able to do some teamwork out there.”
After 20 kilometers of skiing together, the group finally began to break up when Brooks didn’t realize that the other girls were changing skis.
“At 21 k I was leading through the stadium and the other girls stopped to switch skis and I didn’t,” she said. “Then they caught me and they just flew by me on the downhill and I had no chance. I went from skiing with the pack to just not being able to keep up at all. So that was a little tactical mistake on my part.”
Over the next nine kilometers, Brooks lost thirty seconds to her teammates, and ended up crossing the line in 25th.
“I’ve been pretty darn consistent at this Championships,” she said of the result. “I was 25th, then 27th, and then 25th. Not quite my goal, I had a goal of the top 20 today… I’m not ecstatic, but I’m not upset either.”
Randall and Arritola skied together for a bit longer, but at the end, Randall skied away from her teammate. The sprint star finished 18th, while her younger teammate was twelve seconds behind in 21st. Randall’s strong finish came in spite of her cramping quads, which see said were often a challenge in longer races; in the mixed zone, she was drinking a Fanta soda to try to send sugar to her muscles.
“Kikkan got me at the end,” Arritola said of the last kilometers of their race. “I kind of figured that would happen.”
Arritola might have had the most frustrating week of any of the women besides Randall. She had entered only one race, the 15 k pursuit, where she finished 43rd. She had been very clearly upset at her performance in the pursuit.
Today, while she didn’t turn in the performance of a lifetime, she was more pleased with her result.
“Today was a little better for sure,” she said. “My body’s just a little off. That kind of happens. But it doesn’t get much better than this for skiing, the fans are incredible and the day is beautiful, so, yeah. I did all I could.”
Regardless of their feelings about their individual performances, the women were unanimously psyched about their work as a team.
“To have four girls in the top 25 at Holmenkollen I think is really solid,” Brooks said.
“It’s super cool because it means we can continue to push each other,” she said. “It’s an exciting time to be in U.S. skiing, especially for the women, we’ve taken a back seat to the men for so long. The door has been opened to show what we can do.”
Now that they quartet has finished competing, they are planning on soaking up the Holmenkollen atmosphere.
“I’m planning on reallllllly living it up in the camp areas out there tomorrow,” Stephen said.