Kikkan Randall won the freestyle sprint at the Lahti, Finland, World Cup on Saturday. With the way the American has been skiing this year it can reasonably be said that any time she lines up for a race in her favorite discipline, it’s her race to lose — she had won all but one skate sprint this season when she lined up for Saturday’s race — but on this particular day Randall’s victory was especially meaningful. It was the outcome of a photo finish with Marit Bjørgen (NOR), the only woman Randall had yet to face in a skate sprint this year. The win also came on the day of the 30-year-old’s 100th career World Cup start. But most importantly, it locked down Randall’s season-long quest for the World Cup sprint globe for the second year in a row.
“I’m pretty psyched about the day,” Randall said. “Today was my 100th World Cup start so I was hoping to make it a special day all around.”
Winning the qualifier was the only way she could have put together a more flawless performance. Randall was eleventh person to qualify for the Lahti heats, 3.62 seconds out of Vesna Fabjan’s (SLO) top time, but she went on to ski tactically smart rounds to win her quarterfinal, semifinal and, of course, the final heat. Lahti’s course was short and simple — the women completed it about 2:40 — but Randall correctly judged where she needed to be at each point of the course in order to wind up in front at the line. Even with Bjørgen closing in on her in the last meters of the final, it wasn’t quite enough track to dethrone Randall.
“Woo! If that finish line had been another five meters it would have been really close, but I’m glad to hang on until the end,” Randall said in her FIS interview after the finish.
In the end, seven hundredths of a second separated Bjørgen from winning in her first and only freestyle sprint this season. The Norwegian later admitted to some frustration that she hadn’t stretched her foot just a bit further in the lunge, but took her hat off to Randall’s ability to close out a race.
“I am very annoyed with myself over the [finish], that I did not throw forefoot,” Bjørgen told the NRK. “I would probably have been good enough to win today… I might have been smarter before I came on the [finish].”
Though hard on herself, Bjørgen knew Randall skied a better race on the course they were given.
“Kikkan did very well today, I have a lot to learn there,” she said.
For Randall, Bjørgen’s presence on the start list made victory taste a tiny bit sweeter. Heart trouble in December forced the Norwegian to skip every skate sprint preceding Lahti on the race calendar, and the absence of the greatest female skier in the world was the one thing Randall felt detracted from her own early-season wins.
“There are certainly other athletes that can be a threat any time you go into a skate sprint, but everybody holds [Bjørgen] as the gold standard,” Randall said. “Even though I’d won a couple other races this season, it could have been easy for someone to say, ‘Yeah, but Marit wasn’t there, she wasn’t against Marit,’ so it’s nice to finally get that monkey off my back and be in a race with her.”
Randall’s strategy to get out fast from the gun proved to be the winning one, but Bjørgen almost made the opposite tactic work in the final heat. She and Randall faced Charlotte Kalla (SWE), Slovakia’s Alena Prochazkova, Britta Johansson Norgren (SWE) and Riikka Sarasoja-Lilja (FIN) in the final round, and when the gun wet off Randall moved to the front as Bjørgen sat back in the second row of skiers.
Other skiers had repeatedly found it difficult to move up from that position on Lahti’s short, windy course, but this was not the case with Bjørgen. After the first, quick hill Bjørgen’s relaxed form drew even with Randall and the race became a battle between the two strong skaters. When Bjørgen moved into the lead, Randall latched onto her. The American soon regained control of the front, and the pair put distance on the other four women as they wound around the V-boards before the descent to the finish.
“It was kind of fun; towards the second half of the race it ended up being kind of a duel between her and I,” Randall said.
Had there been a few more meters in the finish straight the race might have gone Bjørgen’s way —she V2ed furiously in the last few seconds to shrink a gap to Randall to practically nothing. But there wasn’t quite enough space, Bjørgen didn’t have the same lunge, and Randall ultimately won by 0.07 seconds. After Bjørgen, Prochazkova claimed third place for her first podium appearance since 2010.
Randall and Bjørgen, friends as well as competitors, hugged after the finish.
“We’re good friends and afterwards we got to laugh about it,” Randall said. “I asked her what World Cup start this was for her; I said, ‘You’re probably over 200 by now,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, probably.’”
Randall can now relax for the last two classic sprints of the season knowing that the crystal sprint globe is hers. There are only 150 points left to be had between Drammen and Stockholm, and Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), who did not make it past the semifinals in Lahti, is 208 points behind Randall in the latest standings.
“I tried not to focus on that,” Randall said of the crystal globe. “I focused on just performing well and I knew if I did, that the points would take care of themselves, but it’s nice to know that’s wrapped up now.”
One hundred World Cup starts after she first entered a pre-Olympic sprint in Soldier Hollow, Utah, in 2001 at the age of 19, Randall says it’s nice to be in the position in 2013 ofe a regular threat for a win.
“I think I was 24th in the sprint there [in 2001] and I got seven World Cup points, and at the time that was so exciting,” Randall recalled of her World Cup debut. “Any time you were in the top-30 and you scored World Cup points it was something to get excited about. So it’s pretty funny that, 100 starts later, we’re in the hunt for the win every time in the skate sprint now. I got to go up against one of the sport’s greatest athletes today and it was definitely close there at the end, she was coming on strong, but it’s just nice to know that… It’s taken me a lot of races and a lot of time to get to this point, but if you put in the work and stay dedicated then you can be the best in the world. And it’s pretty fun.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.