All 2012 FIS World Cup Finals coverage is brought to you through the generous support of Fischer Sports USA, proud sponsors of Kikkan Randall, 2012 overall Sprint Cup Champion.
FALUN, Sweden – One last 10k and the US women closed out what has been a historic World Cup season with another excellent performance in the World Cup Finals pursuit.
After a series of strong races in the World Cup Finals prior to Sunday’s skate race, the US started Kikkan Randall in 7th, Jessie Diggins in 17th and Liz Stephen in 24th.
Randall had her work cut out for her on a slow course, softening despite a heavy salting in the morning.
While Maiken Caspersen Falla (NOR) starting just seven seconds ahead made for good hunting, Randall had two more Norwegians, Marthe Kristoffersen and Kristin Stoermer Steira coming from behind.
“I knew it would be a challenging race,” Randall told FasterSkier. “The two behind me were coming on strong, so I tried to put a good effort on—make ‘em work hard to catch me.”
Stoermer Steira is one of the best distance skaters on the circuit, and Kristoffersen experienced a breakout season, bringing consistency to her obvious talent and fitness.
With just a 16-second gap, Randall would be hard pressed to hold off the pair as they worked together.
Her hope, she said, was to “latch on” when the inevitable occurred, and hang for the remainder of the race.
The stronger sprinter, Randall would be in good position if she remained in contact into the homestretch.
Randall caught Falla first, and the two hit Mördarbacken together, less than 10 seconds up on Steira and Kristofferesen.
The two Norwegians closed that gap up the hill, and Randall locked in as they came around and up the lower portion of the climb to complete the lap.
Falla quickly dropped off, and when the trio came through the stadium, the Norwegians “put on a strong move,” and Randall had no choice but to let them go.
Yet another Norwegian, Martine Ek Hagen, had been steadily making up ground on her own after starting 31 seconds back on Randall in 13th.
She finally closed the gap on the American on the second time up Mördarbacken.
Randall did not waver, and the two stayed together right to the finish, with Randall showing off her Sprint Champion chops and gaining the upper hand to take 8th.
When Hagen caught her, Randall said it allowed her to “dig deep and get the last little bit out.”
“I’m definitely happy. It was a hard race, but that’s the way you want to finish the season,” Randall said.
She posted the 15th best time on the day, just over a minute behind the fastest woman, Therese Johaug (NOR).
“This is a good event for them,” US Coach Matt Whitcomb said of the women. “They’re really strong hunters and motivated by seeing someone up the hill and putting them behind.”
He added that the race, one of the team’s favorite formats, “went basically as planned.”
Diggins moved up two places, but posted the 9th fastest time of the day and finished at the back of a pack of six women after making aggressive move on the last lap.
She started the race just four seconds up on Finnish veteran Riitta Liisa Roponen.
According to Diggins, Roponen’s husband, a coach with the Finnish team approached her before the race and suggested that the two women team up and work together to move up.
The pair ended up as the key drivers of a fast-moving chase pack.
Diggins pointed to transitions as her strength and told FasterSkier “I would lead the flats and downs and others would lead the up hills and gradual ups. We worked together and reeled in the group.”
On the final lap, riding “really fast skis” Diggins opened a small gap on a descent, and attacked from there.
She wasn’t able to grow the lead to more than five meters, and was expending a lot of energy.
“I was doing all the work and then they all passed me at the end…I had nothing left for the sprint, but it was totally worth the try,” Diggins said. “It was great to be able to end the year with a race where I felt like I hung in there.”
Stephen rounded out the American trio, attacking hard from the get-go, with a number of skiers ahead to catch.
“Adrenalin is like half the race,” Stephen said.
She moved up steadily throughout the first half before tiring somewhat on the last lap.
With the continuing warm temperatures, Stephen said the skiing was slow and hard.
“The first two k were brutal,” she said.
A strong climber, Stephen, not surprisingly, was happy to see the large hill come after those first kilometers of gradual skiing.
“The hill was actually one of the easier parts,” she said. “V1 just feels easier for me.”
Stephen moved up six places, and always preferring a longer race, said she “could have used another lap out there” to reel in more spots.
Alternatively, she added, a better start position would have been nice.
“Just skiing faster the last two days would help too…but next year that will be the goal,” Stephen said.
Her time for the day ranked 16th, just a few seconds behind Randall’s.
Sunday’s pursuit brought to a close the five month long World Cup season, eliciting mixed reactions from the US skiers.
On the one hand they said they were happy to close out the best season in the history of US women’s cross-country skiing, and after another week or so of more relaxed competition, have a bit of down time.
But all three skiers expressed sadness at leaving their teammates.
“It is amazing being on the road with your best friends for five months of the year, doing what you love and you can call it your job—it doesn’t get better than this,” Stephen said.
Whitcomb seconded the sentiment, adding “I think the biggest thing was being five months together on the road, really caring about each other, really looking out for each other, really motivating each other.”
In reference to the results, Whitcomb continued “This is what happens when you work together—that’s a team right there.”
After spending years on the circuit as the only woman on the US team, Randall was thrilled to have a group of teammates this year.
“It’s huge,” Randall said. “It makes being on the road really fun—these girls are inspiring me to be even better.”
Diggins is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of experience. She got in one World Cup race last year prior to World Championships, but in most respects this was her rookie season.
“This year was the full experience, living out of a suitcase, hopping hotels, it was really really cool,” Diggins said. “I feel so lucky to be a part of it.”
On the way to the venue on Sunday, Diggins said the Americans were talking about how much their lives were about to change after the months on the road.
“I’m hoping to find stuff to keep myself busy so I don’t bore myself to death,” Diggins said, only partly in jest.
Stephen, who has been riding a hot streak, also found it hard to walk away with races going so well.
“I feel like I am in great shape right now so it is a little hard to have the season end, but at the same time it is a great for the season to end so well,” Stephen said.
Matt Voisin contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.