OBERSTDORF, Germany – Kikkan Randall’s pink tiara will have to wait until next year.
The birthday girl had a cardboard crown on hand for Stage 3 of the Tour de Ski on Saturday—a gift from her mother that Randall was ready to pull out if she made the final heat of the classic sprint race.
Unfortunately, the tiara had to stay in her backpack, as the Alaskan got a 29th birthday present of an unexpected and unwelcome sort: a faceful of snow and an early end to her afternoon.
With just 200 meters left in her semifinal heat and a berth in the finals all but guaranteed, Randall tripped and crashed, then had to watch as her competitors glided past. A day that was brimming with promise was over before she knew what had happened, leaving her in disbelief and wondering what she might have been able to accomplish.
“Skis were good, everything seemed to be clicking,” said Randall, who ultimately finished ninth place. “All of a sudden, my ski just went behind my other foot, and just launched. It was unbelievable.”
Up until the crash, though, Randall’s racing had been textbook.
She’d blazed through qualifying, placing fourth behind three world champions in Norwegians Marit Bjoergen and Astrid Jacobsen, and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL).
She won her first heat, then, in the semifinals, faced off against Kowalczyk.
The Polish star is on fire: She went on to win Saturday’s sprint going away, and has captured all three stages of this year’s Tour. Randall followed her up the big climb, and by the time the pair came back down into the stadium, the Alaskan was trailing, but had broken away from the other four women in the heat.
“[Kowalczyk] was making a really hard push, and I felt confident. I was definitely pushing hard, too, but I definitely felt controlled and relaxed,” Randall said. “I felt like I would have had another gear to dig into for the final—I was trying to kind of race to hold my position, but also saving a little bit.”
But instead of moving on, Randall went down. Four hours after the crash, she still was searching for an explanation of what had happened.
“The only thing I can come up with is that maybe my wax caught, or something,” she said. “It really caught me by surprise.”
The crash was violent; Randall vaulted into the air, then into the snow. But she said that while she felt “a little tweaked out,” the only thing that was really hurt was her chances in the race.
She picked herself up quickly, since she hadn’t seen anyone ski past, but then France’s Aurore Jean sailed by and claimed the last spot in the finals.
Randall crossed the line fuming, letting out an exasperated wail as she met her coaches.
“How did that happen?” she asked them. “I felt so good!”
She declined to speak with reporters immediately afterwards, but after a cooldown, she said that this crash had been especially confounding compared to a pair of others she’s suffered in sprint races in the last year—one at the World Championships in Oslo in February, and another just before Christmas in Rogla, Slovenia.
“This one—it was all on my own, and things were going so well….Watching how the finals did play out, and the fact that Kowalczyk got away by so much, it makes me wonder. I think I’d have had a really good shot,” she said. “Three big ones in a row now with Oslo, Rogla, now this. Doesn’t feel good, but hopefully I’ve got my three done and out of the way now.”
There was still one positive to the race, and that was the way that Randall had been skiing up until the crash.
She was clearly among the top 10 in the world for the third straight day, and appeared to have a legitimate shot at the top three. The podium is a familiar place to Randall when it comes to freestyle sprints, but not when it comes to classic technique.
“ If I’d podiumed today, that’s just head and shoulders above where I’ve been in classic sprinting,” she said. “Bummer I didn’t get to prove it.”
She’s still in fifth place in the overall standings of the Tour, with a freestyle sprint still to come next week in Toblach, Italy. And perhaps the best part about the hectic schedule of stage racing is that Randall doesn’t have too long to dwell on her mishap—she’ll be competing again 24 hours later.
“It was tough after Rogla, seeing as we had two weeks until another race,” she said. “It’s a great chance to just refocus and move on.”
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.