The U.S. Women’s Nordic Ski Team finished off their weekend opener in Beitostølen, Norway, with a bang on Sunday, as reigning World Cup sprint champion Kikkan Randall claimed a win in the 1.2-kilometer freestyle sprint FIS race.
Seventh in the qualifier then second in the her quarterfinal and semifinal, Randall won the final in 2:17 minutes, 0.8 seconds ahead of runner-up Vesna Fabjan of Slovenia. Coming in third, Slovenian Katja Visnar followed her teammate by 1 ½ seconds.
In an email, Randall explained Brun-Lie, who won the qualifier along with her quarterfinal and semifinal (beating Randall by 0.4 seconds in the semi), led out the final, but lost her balance halfway through. According to Randall, that opened up the race. Randall ended up trailing Fabjan until midway up the final climb, then decided to make a move over the top.
“I thought I might get challenged on the homestretch but the shadows never came,” Randall wrote.
Following the top three, three Norwegians – Marit Bjørgen, Celine Brun-Lie and Ingvild Østberg – took fourth through sixth respectively, all within less than a second and a half of each other, but more than three seconds behind Randall.
When it came to Randall’s game plan, the 30-year-old Alaska Pacific University (APU) skier explained it was simple.
“Pretty much ski hard, play with some different tactics and get a hard workout!” she wrote. “In both the quarter and semis I was always following someone off the final turn and then making sure I was strong on the homestretch to guarantee moving on each time.”
All she needed to do was make the top two in each heat. Easier said than done, but the world champion did it. On Friday, Randall placed 10th in the 10 k classic race – her first of the season.
“ I am happy to have two solid races under my belt,” Randall wrote. “This weekend was mostly about waking up the body before the World Cup opener [in Kuusamo, Finland] next week. It’s a good confidence boost to stack up well against a strong field. But the real tests begin next week!”
Four other U.S. Ski Team (USST) women advanced to the heats and ended up in the top 20, failing to make the semifinals.
Ida Sargent (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) tallied 13th – an improvement from finishing 29th in Friday’s 10 k. She qualified in 13th and went on to place third in her quarterfinal, 1.8 seconds behind Norwegian quarterfinal winner Maiken Caspersen Falla (who ended up seventh) and 0.5 seconds behind Mari Eide (who placed 10th).
“It was a short fast sprint and the qualifier was over before I knew it,” Sargent wrote in an email. “In the quarterfinal I wanted to get out fast but I got pushed outside on the first corner and ended up in 4th going down the downhill. I moved up to second on the uphill where I was feeling strong but I skied the finishing stretch really poorly.”
In retrospect, Sargent felt she chose the wrong technique.
“[I] should have been using V2 alternate instead of V2 on the fast snow,” she wrote. “I was just skiing really awkward and bobbled and almost fell and then I lost ground.”
On the whole, her experience was positive. “I’m just excited to be back racing again and finding improvements with each race,” she wrote. “It was still really fun to race a heat against lots of really fast ladies. The Norwegian women are so strong and the Slovenians are also skiing really fast so it was great to race them.”
The rest of the U.S. women came in 17th through 19th, with Jessie Diggins, Sophie Caldwell and Sadie Bjornsen, respectively.
Fourth in her quarterfinal and just a tenth of a second behind Sargent, Diggins explained in an email it hadn’t been an easy training week leading into Beitostølen, leaving her a little sore and tired before Sunday’s race. But that was part of the plan.
“It’s a long season ahead!” Diggins wrote. “I was psyched that the two races this weekend went as well as they did, especially since it’s the plan to work into the season.”
She qualified in eighth, but ran out of room in the quarterfinals, she explained.
“This sprint was wicked short — like 2:15 in the qualifier,” she wrote. “I like much longer sprints, because it takes me longer to work into it. … I felt better and better in the finishing lanes and was picking up speed, but needed a longer course to do some damage. But it was a great way to get back into the feel of sprinting, get used to the warming up and testing ski process again.”
Teammate Sophie Caldwell got a little too cold during the prelim and felt a bit stiff in her legs, but was happy to qualify in ninth. From there, she said her quarterfinal was “fun,” going up against top women like Fabjan, Bjørgen, and Norway’s Heidi Weng, who took first through third in the heat, respectively.
“I didn’t realize I had Marit in my heat until I toed the start line and then I just tried my best to tuck in behind her,” Caldwell wrote. “I had a good start and was able to stay in 2nd for the first half of the race before moving back to 4th. It was exciting to have all five girls qualify, so hopefully that means we’re in a good place!”
Additionally, she was excited to watch one of her teammates win outright and teammates Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton place sixth and 27th, respectively.
Bjornsen, who notched fifth in Friday’s 10 k classic, qualified in 14th and went on to place fourth in her quarterfinal. She was 0.8 seconds out of first, with Visnar, Randall and Norway’s Hilde Landheim taking first through third.
“It was fun to sprint again,” Bjornsen wrote. “… [And] a good warm up for next weekends world cups which I am looking forward to! This weekend was about getting back into the grove of racing. Warm-up, ski selection, nerves, pacing. It was a practice race before it really counts.”
The last time she started her season in Europe – two years ago – the team didn’t do that, Bjornsen explained.
“So now I am really looking forward to Finland and a fun season ahead!!” she added.
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting
Emily Schwing is a public radio reporter in Interior, AK. She normally writes about athletes of the four-legged kind. When she's not chasing dog teams, skiers and local news, she's breaking trail on her rock skis with a dog name Ghost. Follow her on Twitter @emilyschwing