If anyone was going to deny Kikkan Randall of her third-straight skate sprint victory, a feat that hasn’t been achieved on the World Cup since Marit Bjørgen’s similar sprint-winning streak in 2006, it was most likely going to be Bjørgen.
Everyone else had too much respect for Randall: if she decided to lead, they’d let her go and try to hang with her to the finish. If she took the inside lane around a tight corner, like she did in Sunday’s semifinal around Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, her competitors would try to hold their own — but also do their best not to take Randall down.
Randall emerged out of that predicament before the last straightaway in the 1.3-kilometer freestyle sprint semifinal at Sunday’s World Cup in Toblach, Italy. She had nudged her way ahead of Østberg to win the heat, after the Norwegian led most of the semifinal. The two had come in slight contact with extended arms around the turn, but it was clear neither wanted to take each other out of the running.
Bjørgen wasn’t out for blood, either, but she was looking for a victorious sendoff to her fourth Olympics.
“I was good at keeping the peace, and I knew I had good skis and I had the opportunity to settle in the sprint,” Bjørgen told NRK, according to a translation.
The 2-1 favorite from the start (Randall was given 4-5 odds, or an 80 percent chance, of winning), Bjørgen said she felt a little tired earlier in the day — probably a result of Saturday’s effort and her team’s preceding training camp at Seiser Alm, Italy.
“Today I feel a bit slow in the beginning and feel better and better in each heat,” she told FIS in a post-race interview. “I just had to calm down and have as much power in the end.”
For Bjørgen, that meant letting others do the work early then take control by the final descent. She relied on superior glide throughout her heats to get her where she needed to be on the downhills before the stadium. In the final, she followed one of two teammates in the heat, Østberg, up the first of three hills as the other Norwegian, Maiken Caspersen Falla, led the pack with Randall.
Over the top of the second short-but-steep climb, Randall, who had qualified fourth behind Østberg and two Slovenians: Katja Visnar and Vesna Fabjan, respectively, passed Falla to take control. Germany’s Denise Herrmann quietly moved to third, then challenged Falla and Randall up the outside of the last hill.
Falla got to the top first, Randall tucked behind her on the way down. Bjørgen soared to the front in another track with the skis and energy-saving tactics that had carried her all day. Herrmann went with her, as did Bjørgen’s teammates, and Randall was left chasing the four coming into the final stretch.
“While I’m definitely bummed not to have been in the fight for the win in the final stretch I am happy with the way I felt today and I probably learned more from the way the race played out,” Randall wrote in an email. “With such a long straight downhill before the finish, this was a very tactical course and a very different course from Sochi.
“I am looking forward to heading to Sochi in a couple days and getting in some good training on the sprint course there,” she added.
Similar to her semifinal, in which Bjørgen looked over both her shoulders before the finish to make sure she had won it, then edged Herrmann by four-hundredths of a second, Bjørgen pulled out another victory in 2:59.8. This time, she was four-tenths of a second faster than Herrmann in second, cheering at the finish with a big smile that showed how much the win meant to her.
“The answer I got this weekend means a lot,” Bjørgen told NRK.
Østberg pushed for third (+1.46) and Falla placed fourth (+2.13) to help Norway put three in the top four.
The winner of both her quarterfinal and semifinal, Randall ended up fifth (+2.66), her first time off the podium in the last nine World Cup skate sprints, and Visnar was sixth (+3.01).
“Today was another solid day,” Randall wrote. “Performance was strong through all the rounds just didn’t employ the right tactics in the final. I was really happy with 4th in the qualification and pumped to see 3 of my teammates [Sophie Caldwell, Jessie Diggins and Holly Brooks] advance as well.”
The three other Americans did not reach the semifinals and finished 19th, 28th and 29th, respectively.
Already second to Herrmann in the World Cup sprint standings, Randall retained her position but Herrmann extended her lead to 60 points ahead of her.
“It has become one of my goals now to win the overall World Cup sprint title, but I know it will be tough against Kikkan and Ingvild,” Herrmann told FIS.
Østberg is currently 81 points behind Randall in third.
“It was really great today to be on the podium again,” Herrmann added.
After qualifying in ninth, Herrmann won her quarterfinal ahead of Visnar in second. One of Herrmann’s training partners, 22-year-old Elisabeth Schicho, won her first title at U23 World Championships in the freestyle sprint on Jan. 29, then qualified in Sunday’s World Cup in 22nd before finishing fifth in Herrmann’s quarterfinal.
“It is really great to see her ski so well,” Herrmann said.
“Marit and Denise were really smart in the finals and were in the right place coming into the homestretch,” Østberg told FIS. “I was a little bit caught on the inside and fought as hard as I could to be on the podium today. It was great racing. I am happy with my result and excited for Sochi.”
With Olympic races starting in six days in Sochi’s mountain village of Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, Bjørgen is considering competing in all six events, but doesn’t expect to win gold in every one. Asked if she could medal in each, she acknowledged she’s a favorite in most.
“It’s not impossible,” she told NRK, according to a translation. “But there is plenty to be done before that.”
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.