At least the race for second was interesting. The women’s 4 x 5-kilometer relay at the Lillehammer World Cup in Norway on Sunday was, in some ways, a tale as old as time.
The Norwegian’s top team (out of four Norwegian squads in the women’s race) might as well have lulled spectators to sleep with their predictable execution and essentially flawless victory. But the reality is they’re fun to watch.
And ultimately, teams like the U.S. think they’re beatable – at least that’s what they’ve been told.
“We got a really funny email from a 44-year-old guy in Norway that told us that Norway is definitely beatable, we just have to get close to Marit [Bjørgen] and get her stressed out on the last leg,” US Ski Team member Kikkan Randall said in a post-race phone interview with her relay team. “We’re close. I think our best form is still coming. You’ve got some people that are starting this year off super hot, some people that are building into it, so when it comes to Sochi we just gotta stay close, and I think if we put them under pressure, anything can happen.”
On Sunday, the U.S. women were close, tying their best-ever result of third in a World Cup relay, which they first achieved just over a year ago in Gällivare, Sweden.
The U.S. women’s first team of Randall, Sadie Bjornsen, Liz Stephen and Jessie Diggins was 23.4 seconds shy of another historic first in second place, which went to Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, Anne Kyllönen, Kerttu Niskanen, and Krista Lähteenmäki.
However, the Finns finished a minute and 13.1 seconds behind the Norwegians, who skied themselves out of the ballpark (starting on the second leg) for yet another relay win in 58:38.9.
“This was a good performance from the team, but annoying is when I was not able to [match] Johaug,” Finland’s Kyllönen told the Ilta-Sanomat.
If it makes her feel any better, nobody could on Sunday.
Heidi Weng opened with a solid classic leg to put Norway I in first, Therese Johaug vented some frustrations after her fourth-place finish on Saturday, and Kristin Størmer Steira held steady in the third leg to set Bjørgen up for two final cruiser laps.
Bjørgen told NRK that the lead was so good, she simply needed to stay on her feet. After Steira tagged her in first with a 35-second lead, Bjørgen was one of the few skiers who appeared smooth from start to finish on a snowy and technically wrenching day. Johaug was the other, accelerating out of the stadium with a two-second lead, which quickly grew to 15 seconds just 800 meters into the second classic leg.
But their race started with Weng, the youngest on the team at 22, who made a move just over halfway through the first classic leg.
The U.S. scramble skier, Randall was one of the first out of the gate and led for most of the two-lap 5 k, until Weng attacked exactly where Randall expected her to on the second lap.
As Weng surged up the steep section of the long climb, Randall latched on.
“I just did everything I could to stay on her heels” Randall said. “I was able to all the way up [and over the hill], then just kind of followed her, figuring it would be good to tag off to Sadie [Bjornsen] in the pack knowing we were in touch at the front.”
Weng handed off to Johaug in first, tied with Norway II’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg. Randall was 2.1 seconds back in third, just ahead of Russia’s Julia Ivanova and Finland’s Saarinen in fourth and fifth, respectively.
The scramble leg of the second U.S. team (the first time the Americans have been able to start two women’s relays in recent memory), Sophie Caldwell came through in sixth, just 5.5 seconds after Weng.
With a two-second lead, Johaug didn’t waste anytime breaking away. Meanwhile, Bjornsen and Kyllönen took turns leading the chase, and realistically, battling for second. Strung out by the attack, the rest of the pack fell behind.
“Johaug took off like a crazy lady from the start,” Bjornsen recalled. “It was challenging out there today with all that snow, and you start falling apart at one point and then you just have to collect your mind and know that it’s relay day and just have to keep going. So it was really awesome to have that Finnish girl just to chase down. That’s why I was so stoked to where Kikkan put me … thank God she didn’t stick us way in the front.”
The two followed Johaug into the tag zone, with Kyllönen 38.5 seconds behind in second, Bjornsen 39.2 seconds back in third, and Russia’s Alija Iksanova another 20 seconds back in fourth. Johaug had put down the kind of race Norway needed, setting Steira up perfectly to put Bjørgen in a position to win.
“I was much more active today,” Johaug told NRK, according to a translation. “It was a slightly different body … I was probably a bit annoyed after the race yesterday … and I managed to get the flick that I was missing.”
With nearly 40 seconds separating Stephen from Steira at the start of the third leg, Stephen immediately sprang to try to chase her down.
Two kilometers in, Stephen had made up about five seconds on Norway. Niskanen followed closely in an effort to do the same, and ended up passing Stephen on a climb with about 1 ½ k remaining.
“If I had known how my body was going to feel today, I would have stuck behind Finland for a bit longer than I did,” Stephen said. “But you certainly always hope for the best, and I felt fairly good in warm up and just off the bat, I felt really psyched. Probably a lot of that was adrenaline. Maybe if I had it to do over and I knew exactly how it was going to go, but I was not as concerned with Norway as I was with Charlotte Kalla catching me.”
Down by nearly 45 seconds heading into the third leg, Sweden rose from sixth to fourth with Kalla, just three seconds behind the Americans, by the final exchange.
Trying to hang onto Niskanen while holding off Kalla, Stephen caught her ski tip in some powder on the edge of the course and nearly fell just meters before the exchange. She caught herself, and tagged Diggins in third, about 14 seconds behind Finland and 49 seconds back from Bjørgen.
Careful not to blow up on the first hill out of the stadium, Diggins, the tried-and-tested U.S. anchor, reeled in Lähteenmäki by the 2 k mark. The two skied together to drop Sweden’s Britta Johansson Norgren and Maiken Caspersen Falla of Norway II, in fourth and fifth, respectively.
“I knew we were in for a medal; it would either be silver or bronze,” Diggins recalled.
She took the lead up the long climb of their second lap and over the top, Diggins dropped Lähteenmäki, and said she could feel her energy rising.
“I was ready for a sprint, like, ‘OK, bring it, we can do this. We have this silver medal,’ ” Diggins said. “But then I caught my tip in the powder in the same spot that Liz [did], where suddenly you’re in the track and then [it] suddenly goes away and you’re in some powder.”
Not expecting that, Diggins fell and broke a pole, forcing her to ski over the last bridge without one. On the descent, Norwegian coach Vidar Lofshus ran over to her with a replacement.
“They didn’t have to do that; that’s not part of their job,” Diggins said of the gesture. “I was able to hold off the chasing Norway and Sweden and we were able to get a bronze, which was awesome. It’s still tying our best result ever and it’s cool because I know that, hey, it was a little bit of bad luck with the hard fall and all that, but we’re in good shape. We know how to put together a good day … we are right the hunt and that’s right where we want to be.”
Trailing the U.S. in third by 10.8 seconds, Norway II placed fourth (+1:47.3), Russia I was fifth (+1:53.9), and Sweden placed sixth (+2:05.1) of 19 teams.
USA II, with Ida Sargent, Holly Brooks and Rosie Brennan, went on to place 12th (+3:20.5).
— Emily Schwing contributed reporting
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.