Sticky skis and icy conditions — they don’t always mix. You didn’t have to tell Ida Sargent that.
But it wasn’t about the number of times Sargent fell down on Sunday’s rock-solid course at Sjusjøen, Norway, that mattered. As the starting leg of the U.S. women’s cross-country ski team in the 4×5 k World Cup relay, she had to get back up.
“I didn’t want to lose anymore time than I already had,” Sargent wrote in an email to Fasterkier. “I was already embarrassed enough about falling and being off the back isn’t a fun place to be so I wanted to catch back up.”
With three crashes in the first kilometer, that would’ve been difficult to do. Trailing the Norwegian leaders by more than a minute, she pushed harder for her three teammates; she knew they would do the same.
“I had to go as hard as (I could) and not give an inch even when the race wasn’t going as planned,” Sargent wrote.
Kikkan Randall did her job in reining the Americans back in from being 1:17.1 behind the leader, jumping four spots to put the team in 12th of 16 teams (+1:15.6). Her classic split (13:23.3) was the second-fastest in the second leg, after Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland and ahead of Norway’s winning relay member, Therese Johaug (13:25.9).
“I just kind of told myself, ‘Hey, this is a chance to go out and see how hard you can ski 5 k, it will be a good experience no matter what,’ ” Randall said, a day after she placed eighth in the 10 k freestyle, tying a career-best for a non-sprint.
“I wanted to try to do my best to get us back in the hunt,” she added, “so we could take advantage of the strength we have over here right now. I figured there was nothing to lose, might as well go for it.”
Ultimately, the U.S. women finished ninth, as Liz Stephen clocked a solid freestyle third leg (12:41.4) to put the team in 10th (+1:19.6), and the team’s anchor, Holly Brooks, brought them to ninth. They were 1:54.7 back from the winner, Norway’s ‘A’ team of Johaug, Vibeke Skofterud, Kristen Steira, and Saturday’s 10 k champion, Marit Bjoergen, which finished in 51:50.1.
While Randall wished she could have skied head-to-head with Kowalczyk, who started about 30 seconds ahead of her, and pushed for a better result, she was pleased with her team’s performance and said it was a great sign for the future.
“We’re happy to get a chance to field a team now … and we were only a minute or so out of third,” Randall said. “When we’re all skiing well and we have good luck, I think we can be right in the mix. That’s where we want to be so we’re just excited to have that possibility after really being out of it for so long.”
A year ago at the World Cup opener in Sweden, the U.S. women’s relay was 13th. They improved to ninth in the 4×5 k at the 2011 World Championships in Oslo, Norway.
Head coach Chris Grover, who had not yet joined the team and was in Park City, Utah, said Sunday’s result showed progress.
“One of our goals as a program is to show up at races,” Grover said. “Often in the past we haven’t even fielded a relay team (at World Cup events). Our goal is to start fielding some competitive relay teams and we’re getting closer.
“We didn’t quite have four athletes firing on all cylinders yet, and that’s OK because it’s November, third week in November,” he said, “and there’s lots of season ahead.”
Sargent, for one, wasn’t going to let one day of tough waxing conditions — with skis so sticky they tripped her up — get to her. She said the team is close and builds off one another’s results.
“Today’s race felt better than some of the previous races so I’m excited about that and ready to move forward,” said Sargent, who was 66th on Saturday.
Stephen continued to move forward on Sunday, a day after she notched a career-best 18th place in Saturday’s 10 k skate. In the relay, she worked hard to keep the team without reach of a pressing lead pack. Norway’s Tora Berger, a biathlete on the nation’s ‘B’ team, pushed the group and clocked the fastest third leg (12:33.2).
In an email, Stephen described the conditions as “a bit scary” with “icy tracks and immovable courderouy,” which made the already difficult terrain more challenging. On the whole, she said the race was exciting because the U.S. was in the mix.
“We can be top 6 with 4 good legs, for sure,” Stephen wrote. “And we have a strong group of 6 that can all be really strong on any given day.”
Brooks said the same about the team’s additional talent in USST members Sadie Bjornsen and Jessie Diggins.
“If you take out Norway’s extra teams we would have been 6th place which (handily) beats our 9th place at Worlds last season,” Brooks wrote in an email.
Rounding the corner near the finish line, Brooks was one of four racers straining to fit into three lanes.
“I probably lost a tenth of a second jockeying for the middle lane with Italy,” she wrote. Germany’s Monique Siegel began sprinting down the outside and finished just ahead of Brooks in 53:44.7.
“It came down to myself and Russia and my foot was longer in the lunge,” she wrote of the photo finish, which the U.S. took by 0.1 second in 53:44.8. “I’m already looking forward to the next 4x5k relay!”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.