World CupLed By Randall’s 12th-Place Finish, American Women Excel – And Gain More Fans

Avatar Chelsea LittleNovember 26, 2011
Kikkan Randall (L) and Holly Brooks racing in the women's 30 k skate at the 2011 World Championships in Oslo.

Editor’s Note: There has been significant confusion regarding results for today’s World Cup races. The FIS website lists overall standings for the three-race mini-tour. Kikkan Randall is 5th in those standings, and finished 12th in today’s 5km freestyle.

There are, Kikkan Randall concedes, downsides to success. But they’re pretty miniscule.

For one, the American skier’s expectations have been raised since notching her first-ever distance top ten in Sjusjøen, Norway last weekend, and then skiing to fourth place in the classic sprint in Kuusamo, Finland yesterday.

In today’s 5 k freestyle World Cup, the second stage of the “Ruka Triple” in Kuusamo,  Randall skied to twelfth place, 35 seconds behind winner Marit Bjørgen of Norway. Last year, she probably would have been elated with the result. But now?

“I was hoping for a little better- in the top ten,” Randall wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier.

“My expectations have certainly changed based on the results from the past two weekends. Now that I know I can race in the top ten, that is where I will be aiming for each race. I definitely went into the 5 k today wanting to lay down a top-ten worthy effort, so I was a little disappointed to be just outside.”

But high expectations are a very small price to pay, and Randall was still thrilled with her performance in Kuusamo today – especially since her legs were heavy and she didn’t have her best energy.

“This ranks as one of my top three distance World Cup results, so I am pretty satisfied,” she said. “I did ski competitively right in there, only a few seconds out of the top ten.”

Thanks to her success in yesterday’s sprint, Randall was one of the last starters of the day. She started thirty seconds in front of Charlotte Kalla of Sweden, who is one of the best skiers in the world at any distance and an especially strong skater. While Kalla was breathing down Randall’s neck over the last half of the race, the American couldn’t tell – and Kalla never actually caught her.

“Knowing Kalla was starting thirty seconds behind me was a little extra motivation for sure,” Randall said. “[But] I was focusing on my own race. I knew that if I skied well I could stay ahead of her.”

The twelfth-place finish has been part of a steady improvement in Randall’s distance skiing. The trend is especially noticeable compared to past results from this same race, which Randall has been contesting for six years now. In 2006, she finished 68th in a 10 k classic race. By 2009, she was inside the top twenty, notching 18th in the same race, and last year she stepped up to 17th in the 5 k classic.

Teammate Liz Stephen, who finished 28th, said in an interview that Randall’s results validate the team’s entire approach and lifestyle.

“You look at someone like Kikkan, and she’s been doing this for ten years,” Stephen said. “And she’s just now – I mean, last year of course she had great results – but she’s just now starting to be a contender every day.

“And we just have to be patient, I think. Everyone wants success now, today, but it doesn’t happen that way. So it’s really exciting for us to see that the really consistent, hard work she’s put in year after year is paying off. And I think it will for everybody.”

Randall noted that becoming an overall contender had been a long-term goal.

“It’s nice to start seeing some solid progress towards that goal,” she told FasterSkier. “It will be fun to go into every event now feeling competitive.”

While Randall’s results are the most spectacular – on the small scale, she will be starting tomorrow’s pursuit in fifth position, and on the large scale she is doing things that no American woman has ever done, collecting results that no American woman has ever collected – the rest of the American team is also more solid than it has ever been.

Holly Brooks, who is not a U.S. Ski Team member but is competing on the World Cup thanks to being last year’s SuperTour leader, had her best-ever international finish, placing 17th. She was only 6.5 seconds behind her APU teammate, Randall.

“Today’s result gives me the confidence that will help carry me through Christmas and the rest of my time here in Europe,” Brooks wrote in an e-mail. “I wasn’t all that far from the top ten which also shows that on a good day, anything can happen.”

Brooks needed to rebound after a frustrating classic sprint yesterday which saw her finish 70th. Today, she said, she focused on going hard and making up for what she called “yesterday’s debacle.”

Brooks started just behind Astrid Jacobsen of Norway, who skied an aggressive race and held the lead until Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland crossed the line 61 starters later. Brooks knew that Jacobsen was having a good race, and tried to use it as added motivation.

“Astrid Jacobsen had a tough day yesterday too and started ahead of me so I assumed that she was the race leader,” she said. “It was a safe assumption seeing that she maintained her seat in the leader’s chair for quite some time. One of these days I’m going to sit in that chair too!”

Stephen was the next U.S. skier on the results sheet. Like Brooks, she had trouble in the sprint and had finished 85th. As a result, she was one of the very first starters and actually had the winning time until Jacobsen finished eleven bibs later.

Stephen said that the short, 5 k distance was tough for her, and that she didn’t feel like she had all of her speed in her legs yet. It was, she laughed, longer than a sprint – so that was a bonus.

U.S. Ski team rookie Sadie Bjornsen started thirty seconds ahead of Marthe Kristoffersen of Norway, which turned out to be a huge benefit.

“I knew that Marthe was going to pass me at some point so from the gun, I felt like I was running from the big bad wolf,” she wrote in an e-mail. “She passed me at a good time, because I knew there was only about 1.5 k left, and I was just going to hang on for dear life.”

The plan worked. Bjornsen stuck to the Norwegian like glue, losing only three seconds in the last 1500 meters. Kristoffersen placed eighth, one of the best finishes of her career, while Bjornsen ended up 37th.

“This is the most exciting part about skiing in Europe,” Bjornsen said. “You get to ski around some of the fastest skiers in the world… skating with steep uphills is my least favorite type of race, so today I went out there to play and see what I could pull off.”

With Ida Sargent finishing 47th, the women truly had one of their best days ever in World Cup action.

“We’ve got a really good vibe going on the women’s team right now that stems back from Oslo World Champs last February,” Randall said. “I think we can all see what is possible now. We work together in the off-season and push each other, and now we are seeing the positive results of that in our racing.”

Both Stephen and Randall pointed out how far the American women’s team had come in the last decade. The first year that Randall traveled to Kuusamo, she was the only woman.

“Now [we have] three in the top 30 and almost four,” she said.

Stephen agreed, saying that having so many good performances motivates everyone.

“To have five in the top fifty and three in the top thirty, that’s awesome,” Stephen said. “It’s good to have some momentum behind us. If there’s only two of you on the [World Cup], then there’s always the chance that both of you are going to have a bad day. But with a team like this, somebody’s always going to have a good day. There’s a lot of really exciting and positive stuff going on.”

The women mentioned two more sources of motivation. Stephen thanked the U.S. community for their support, saying that she got e-mails after every race from fans who woke up before dawn to watch the races online.

And according to Randall, the team’s fanbase was no longer limited to one side of the Atlantic.

“The fans on the sidelines are adopting us a little bit and cheering louder for USA,” she said.

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