DAVOS, Switzerland – Denise Herrmann of Germany may have had a monster qualifier for the 1.5 kilometer freestyle sprint this morning, but in the afternoon, pure speed was not enough. To win a women’s sprint final these days, you need to be smart, fearless, careful, aggressive, and a little bit lucky, all at the same time.
Nobody knows that better than Kikkan Randall of the United States and Marit Bjørgen of Norway, almost certainly the two best sprinters in the women’s field over the past two seasons, especially in skating. And so despite bumps, crowding, and slow starts, it came down to these two old pros in the last meters of the race, sprinting for all they were worth.
It wasn’t immediately obvious who won – the photo finish had to be examined closely by the officials. The two women congratulated each other as they waited. When the announcement came out that Bjørgen had won by about two centimeters, the Norwegian pumped her arms in victory, something she couldn’t have had the confidence (or spare energy) to do at the actual finish line.
“Kikkan was very strong in the semifinals,” the Bjørgen said. “So I knew it would be tough in the finals. I fought all the way to the line and I am very happy about the result.”
Obligatory jokes about the size of the women’s ski boots aside, Randall – who was also second in the first sprint of the World Cup season, that time to Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk in a classic race in Kuusamo, Finland – took the loss pretty well.
“I love close races, but I like to be on the other side of it,” she said. “I’d rather do this now and have it be close, and give me that fire that I need to keep working. I never rest on my laurels, but I like to be challenged. These next few sprints leading into Sochi, this is perfect.”
It was the 62nd career victory for Bjørgen, the second in two days, and the second time that she has swept a race weekend here in Davos. But even after a come-from-behind win in yesterday’s 15 k freestyle, Bjørgen was wary of the competition she knew she would face today.
“Kikkan is a very strong sprinter and to beat her today is a very good feeling for me,” And it gives a good feeling for Sochi in February as well. So yes, it’s good to take wins during the season.”
The two women followed similar strategies throughout the heats on this unique course, which consists of two laps of a small loop with only one major uphill. On a long, very gradual section coming through the stadium to lap, both Randall and Bjørgen would typically make aggressive attacks to gain several spots before heading up the hill the final time.
“I knew it was going to be important to be in the top two going up and over the hill, just to have a good pole position coming into the finish,” Randall said. “That hill is one of my strengths. I didn’t feel quite 100 percent today, so I’m looking forward to that gear coming around a little bit.”
In the final, Randall came off the hill first (after an earlier incident where she was pushed off course, which you can read about in a separate piece). Against any other skier, you might assume her lead would last until the finish – especially with the rocket-fast skis the U.S. team was blessed with all day. But Bjørgen’s Norwegian tech teams could match this feat, and more importantly, Bjørgen could match Randall’s tenacity.
“I’m really proud of how Kikkan put herself in a position to win the race today,” U.S. Ski Team women’s coach Matt Whitcomb said. “Of course, when you’re going against Marit Bjørgen, that’s not always good enough.”
Bjørgen came flying around the final corner towards the finish, and clawed her way up to the American as the meters ticked down, only drawing even at the very end.
“Overall actually I felt really good – I just need to remember to hold form in that last 20 meters,” Randall said.
But Bjørgen feels like she still has things to improve upon, too.
“I think I have to work with my foot, because I think she has a better [lunge] than me,” she said.
So in Sochi? Look out for an even faster and more exciting sprint.
With admirable speed but a bit outclassed on the track, Herrmann hung on for third, just a quarter second behind the winner. It was the second podium of her career, with both coming this season: Herrmann is showing that she is a force to be reckoned with as she qualified second and placed third at the classic sprint earlier this season.
“I’m really happy today,” she said. “It was a perfect day for me, perfect weather. The sun was shining, and it’s totally crazy that I finished on the podium. I did not have a good start in the finals, but I tried to stay relaxed and I gave it all in the second lap. Luckily it was enough for the podium.”
Hanna Erikson of Sweden placed fourth, Vesna Fabjan of Slovenia fifth, and Stina Nilsson of Sweden, the 2012 sprint World Junior Champion, sixth.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.