DUSSELDORF, Germany — Kikkan Randall is a World Cup Overall threat.
At least, that was the way it felt in the city of Dusseldorf Saturday afternoon, when Randall hammered around the 900-meter manmade loop on her way to her first World Cup victory of the season.
In the freestyle sprint, Randall out-gunned Natalia Matveeva (RUS) in the rush for the line, while Laurien Van Der Graaf (SUI) picked up the bronze medal in her first-ever sprint final experience.
Van Der Graaf beat out Canadian Chandra Crawford, while top-qualifier Riika Sarasoja-Lilja (SWE) and Hanna Brodin (SWE) got tangled up in the first corner and went down, and both finished off the back.
A U.S. Ski Team (USST) veteran, Randall opened the season with a rash of strong distance results, including a 6th place finish in the Kuusamo mini-tour.
And the first two World Cup weekends lacked the one race that Randall has become dominant in – the freestyle sprint.
But Saturday in Dusseldorf, the American sprint-star turned World Cup overall contender took to the start line of the first freestyle sprint of the World Cup season, in a location that has long been one of her best.
Randall was the favorite from the start – with World Cup leader Marit Bjoergen sitting out, the American was the top seed in qualification, and laid down the 10th fastest time around the short 900 meter course.
From the very first round, it was clear that Randall was going to be a threat. She powered through her first heat, and despite a photo finish with Hanna Brodin, her advancement was never really in doubt.
In her semifinal, Randall was matched up against Sarasoja-Lilja, and joined by Crawford, who also advanced past her quarterfinal convincingly, after a 17th place qualification.
Randall and Crawford slotted themselves in second and third respectively around the first corner, and the jostling for position on the narrow course began in earnest.
Randall attacked on Mt. Dusseldorf, the only hill on the course, and led over the top, while Crawford held third place.
Coming down the finishing straight, Randall was able to hold her lead, and advanced easily to the final. Crawford was unable to squeak past Hanna Brodin (SWE) for an automatic spot in the final, finishing third, waiting on the hot sit to find out if she was fast enough to be the lucky loser.
The second semifinal also included some top names, as home-town favorite Hanna Kolb (GER) was up against Matveeva, who qualified second, and third-place qualifier Mona-Lisa Malvalheto (FIN).
To the disappointment of the crowd, Kolb took herself out of contention early on, falling out of the start gate. In her first-ever semifinal, Van Der Graaf surprised everyone by taking control and opened up a small gap to win the heat and advance.
In the moments leading up the women’s final, there was some apprehension among the North American fans in the crowd.
Randall, Sarasoja-Lilja, Van Der Graaf and Brodin were all either lining up or preparing to do so, when the camera’s showed Crawford, who managed to advance as a lucky loser, kicking off her running shoes and stepping into her boots, held out for her by a Canadian wax tech.
After Crawford did get to the line, the first freestyle sprint final of the World Cup season got underway, and with all six women close in ability, it was immediately crowded on the narrow course.
Around the first corner, a fairly tight uphill left-hander, Sarasoja and Brodin, both at the back of the pack, got tangled up. Sarasoja came off the worst of the pair, going down hard and falling out of contention.
Despite plenty of close calls, shoulder-to-shoulder action and lots of tactical moves, the four remaining women made it around the final corner without incident. North American coaches, staff, and fans were holding their collective breath, as three medals were up for grabs, and just four skiers in contention.
Randall held off a strong late charge from Matveeva, who passed a fading Crawford, while Van Der Graaf also sneaked by the Canadian to pick up the bronze medal, the first World Cup medal of her career.
“It was pretty scrappy out there, narrow course, contact at a couple points,” said Randall in an interview with FasterSkier following the race.
“I was really happy to get into position coming into the finish, and have a good strong finish.”
For Randall, the key to victory was mastering the tricky conditions.
“The snow was really hard to balance on – it was hard to apply a lot of power. With the wind there were times where you really had to stay low, and work the lower body,” she said.
Despite the slippery snow, Randall called the conditions “really good,” and was pleased with the course.
USST Head Coach Chris Grover was enthusiastic about Randall’s day.
“She’s on fire right now,” he said. “It’s great that she’s now at the level where she’s in the running for the World Cup overall.”
“She’s so strong in the skate sprint, and this course has been traditionally good for her,” he added. “So it was great to get the first win of the year.”
Surprise bronze medallist Van Der Graaf, advanced to the first final of her career in just thirteen World Cup starts, after having never finished higher than 21st.
“That was amazing,” said Van Der Graaf of her race in an interview with FasterSkier. “I can’t believe it. It’s just like some dream.”
She mentioned that the racing was very close-quarters and intense.
“It was quite messy,” Van Der Graaf said. “I had some troubles with Chandra Crawford but that’s sprints, that’s normal.”
With her first World Cup medal ever, Van Der Graaf couldn’t find any faults with the day – even rain, blustery winds, an icy course, and above zero temperatures didn’t faze her.
“The conditions were really good – it was rainy and windy but the snow was really good. There is nothing to complain about,” she said with a big smile.
For Crawford, there was slightly less smiling – she felt she had a chance at a medal and let it slip from her hands.
“It was my first final since 2008, so I made my goal, but fourth? Wow,” she said. “I thought I had second, then I really thought I had third, but I got a bit stiff, and I lost a little bit [of speed]. … If you even get off balance the slightest bit on the final stretch, it can cost you a medal.”
It’s not often that two North American women make a sprint final, much less Randall and Crawford, good friends, at least off the course.
“She was extremely aggressive,” Crawford said of Randall’s skiing.“I got to encounter it in my semifinal, so for the final, I was like ‘I gotta be way more aggressive, way more’, but it still wasn’t enough.”
As for scrambling to get her boots on at the start, the Canadians, like most teams, were running in between heats for warm-up and cool-down.
“That’s a good way to channel some adrenaline,” said Crawford of the hurried preparation for the final.
Tomorrow, the Americans will go with two teams – Randall and Sadie Bjornsen, and Ida Sargent and Holly Brooks making up the second tandem.
Crawford team up with Perianne Jones in Canada I, while Dasha Gaiazova and Alysson Marshall will combine for Canada II.