“Did you see the World Cup results this morning?”
“Yeah, that was incredible!”
Variations on this exchange must have been repeated every few seconds in West Yellowstone, Mont., on the morning of the U.S. women’s historic bronze-medal World Cup relay performance. Coaches and athletes were gathered at the South Plateau for a race of their own, but every one of them must have woken up and checked World Cup results before even walking down to breakfast. You couldn’t ski five paces at the venue without overhearing someone talking excitedly about a race that had just happened on the other side of the Atlantic.
No one’s measure of excitement was greater than that of Alaska Pacific University coach Erik Flora, whose athletes Kikkan Randall and Holly Brooks helped lead the charge in Gallivare, Sweden, in both the individual distance race an the 4 x 5 k. Though most of Flora’s Saturday was dedicated to waxing skis and prepping his athletes in Montana, his day began before dawn to watch his athletes make history in Sweden.
“I was cheering very loudly at my computer screen,” Flora said.
Flora was the only one awake in APU’s house when EuroSport showed Jessie Diggins crossing the finish line, and he couldn’t wait to deliver the news to his athletes as they woke up. But every single one of them already knew.
“As everyone was coming down for breakfast they must have checked their phones for results. I was ready to break the news, but they came down the stairs and said, ‘Hey, did you see this?’ Which is cool to see, that it was the first thing they did.”
Once he left the house and arrived at the plateau, Flora said the wave of congratulations that met him at the venue was what really took the cake.
“The best part of it, I think — out of getting this news, watching it, having this incredible performance — was showing up at the race on Saturday in West and seeing how energetic and how much excitement there was in the race field. When I went by all the coaching tables and athletes warming up, everyone was congratulating and high-fiving. To see the impact that had…even though they were halfway across the world, was incredible.”
It’s been said many times already, but one of the most extraordinary aspects of Saturday’s performance was that it wasn’t supposed to happen this early. A relay podium was a goal for Flora and his athletes, but one for later on in the season.
“I knew this was possible, but we didn’t expect it this early on,” Flora said. “I’m so proud of both Kikkan and Holly and the entire team of U.S. Ski Team ladies over there. They’ve done an exceptional job.”
After all, it was only last week that Randall and Flora were being cautiously optimistic about how long it would take the World Cup sprint champion to regain form following a training season dampened by stress fracture. “I’m guessing it may take a few weeks for my race gear to come around,” is what Randall said last Thursday.
With her first distance podium and the first American relay podium in history, reasons for caution have gone out the window. For both Randall and Brooks, expectations have been raised.
Flora’s athletes may have shocked the world this weekend, but when he looks back at their summer training the numbers start to make sense. He credits Randall’s strong pre-injury base and measured approach with how she was able to bounce back so quickly. And in Brooks, he saw a new level of dedication that fueled smart preparation this summer.
“You could see in the training that both ladies had a really, really good summer. Even though Kikkan had setbacks with her foot, she had an incredible first part of her summer. Holly, too, stepped it up and made one more level of commitment. You can see it,” Flora said.
The first race of the year always brings some uncertainty with it, however. “In the fall there’s always the question: ‘How did my training go, am I in shape’ — the anxiousness to see how the first races are going to go. Both had that question going over there and it’s cool to see that the answer was: it was a successful summer.”
Flora’s own expectations, he said, were “definitely” surpassed this weekend, particularly given Randall’s recent injury. When the immediate impact of her stress fracture became apparent, coach and athlete sat down to talk about what it would mean.
“She saw the opportunity to strengthen weaknesses,” Flora said. “She looked at each of the things she could work on rather than what she couldn’t.”
The injury made running and skating impossible, so instead Randall spent more time double poling than she ever has before. She also worked on improving her flexibility, range of motion and balance.
“These results are just from balancing out her skiing a little bit,” Flora said. “I wouldn’t have guessed she’d be on the podium, but she’s so good with her preparation that at the same time it doesn’t surprise me.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.