It may be time to come up with a new way to describe performances by the U.S. women’s cross-country team. “Historic” is becoming a bit overused.
“I am almost getting tired of the word,” U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb joked to FasterSkier after the completion of the Ruka Triple mini-tour. “It has been really fun.”
The groundbreaking stat of the day? Five women in the top 24 — not just for a single race, but in the overall mini-tour standings.
The three-race affair closed out with a 10/15km classic pursuit, and with all five US women starting in the top 24, another stunning day would not be unexpected.
“We looked at today as perhaps the ultimate team event,” Whitcomb said, noting that in a relay, teammates warm-up and race individually.
With the exception of Kikkan Randall in bib #2, the American skiers were all clustered together.
“We were all moving through the pack as one unit and it was just beautiful to watch,” Whitcomb said. “It was just really cool to see this pack — reminiscent of cycling a bit.”
When all was said and done, Randall once again led the way, placing 5th. She was followed by Liz Stephen in 17th, Ida Sargent in 18th, Holly Brooks in 22nd and Jessie Diggins in 24th.
With several inches of new snow, and more falling heavily throughout the race, the Kuusamo trails took on a mid-winter appearance, creating soft tracks and the need for more herringbone on the steep climbs.
According to Whitcomb, waxing was straightforward kick wax, reaching up into the violet range.
Starting nearly a minute behind eventual winner Marit Bjørgen (NOR), Randall would be looking to stay ahead of the chasers. With Krista Lahteenmaki (FIN) and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) both within 10 seconds, that task would be challenging.
The pair caught the American before the two-kilometer mark and the three women formed up into a small chase pack, looking to keep clear of hard charging Norwegians Heidi Weng and Therese Johaug.
Weng made contact first, and wasted no time going by. Only Kowalczyk was able to give chase while Johaug continued to close from behind.
“It looked liked things were going to unravel for Kikkan after a lap or two,” Whitcomb said. “She wasn’t moving with great energy.”
Johaug powered by and neither Randall nor Lahteenmaki responded.
While the race for the podium played out up ahead, Randall and Lahteenmaki worked to hold their 20 second advantage on the next group of skiers.
On a steep climb at 6.5k, Randall accelerated, quickly opening a gap on the Finn and skiing clear. She would finish the race out on her own.
“I think her body just started feeling better,” Whitcomb explained, adding that during the second lap “she started skiing like herself again, really strong.”
With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, Whitcomb said that Randall wishes she had taken a shot to stay with the Norwegians when they went by.
Whitcomb, however, was confident she made the right call at the time.
“It would have been a pretty risky move to go with somebody who is moving through the pack fast when you aren’t feeling that great,” he said.
As hard as it might be to imagine, the day could have been even better for the U.S behind Randall. Stephen hit the final steep climb up to the stadium in 12th place, at the front of a pack. She made what Whitcomb described as a “tactical error,” ended up slipping and needed to go outside of the tracks.
Five women came by, but Whitcomb still described the performance as “phenomenal.”
Stephen is not a strong sprinter, and is even weaker in the classic variety of that event, but a 13th place in the 5k skate moved her all the way up to 24th in the overall entering today’s race.
“I was thinking it could be the best classic race of her life based on the way things have been going — the energy she has been able to put out,” Whitcomb said.
He was correct as Stephen posted the 11th fastest time of the day, easily her best World Cup classic result. Her previous high was 21st last January in the Oteppaa, Estonia 10k.
Whitcomb described Stephen as skiing “with a lot of fierce energy.”
He does not see any frustration with the need to climb back up the standings after the opening sprint event either.
“I think she likes the challenge,” Whitcomb said. “I think that is why relays are so good for her … she likes to pursue skiers and to ski from behind.”
World Cup points are awarded for the time of the day, though as a stage of a tour, they are half the usual amount.
Following Stephen across the line, with a breakthrough performance of her own, was Sargent. After cracking the top-10 for the first time in Friday’s sprint, Sargent started the day in 14th place, and dropped just four spots to 18th.
Sargent cracked the top-30 in a World Cup distance for the first and only time last season in Poland. She bettered her 26th there by six spots as she ranked 20th in time of the day.
“Just a really good race today for Ida,” Whitcomb said. “Confidence is everything. Athletes find it in different ways and at different times. And sometimes it just takes a great result, like a top-10 in the sprint the other day to wake up your distance racing too.”
And while he was pleased with her result, he was hardly surprised.
“When Ida is skiing confidently,” he added, “she is a dangerous competitor.”
Brooks matched her place in last year’s Ruka Triple but placed better on the final day, ranking 18th.
“It was a tough, scrappy race out there today and although I would have liked to have a higher overall finish, I was really satisfied with the day and really happy with how I skied,” Brooks wrote in an email.
She had the opportunity to ski with all her teammates save Randall, and with another strong day across the board thinks it is time for the women to make some Nation’s Cup goals — the World Cup team rankings.
Like Stephen, a strong day by Diggins could have been even more impressive. She miscounted her four laps, and attacked at the end of the third loop, starting her final push to the finish.
At that point she was in 13th place, within striking distance of the top-10.
“I died hard on the next uphill and lost a lot of time and places,” Diggins said. Realizing she had another lap was “a sinking feeling I hope to avoid the rest of the year.”
She still held on to 24th place and stayed within the points in the time of the day, ranking 30th.
After the firs two weeks of racing, the US women have all five skiers ranked in the top-30 on the World Cup.
Randall is 5th, Brooks 14th, Stephen 15th, Sargent 21st and Diggins 30th.
The team will remain in Kuusamo for one more night to recover and setup for a long travel day on Monday to Canada.