KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Liz Stephen wouldn’t acknowledge the degree of her disappointment, but it was there on Saturday, in the form of the tears peeking out from beneath her mirrored sunglasses after the 30-kilometer freestyle race—the last women’s event of these Olympics.
Stephen had just finished in 24th place, three minutes behind the winner—far from where she’d hoped, with a dreamed-of medal skiing away under a burning sun in the form of the Norwegians who took the top three spots in the race.
A strategic decision to switch to new skis at the 10-kilometer mark let the pack get away from her, and she never caught up. The story was the same for Holly Brooks and Kikkan Randall—the two other top American women, who made the same decision and never recovered, placing 27th and 28th.
The call to switch skis came from the U.S. Ski Team’s staff, which had tested on Friday and found that a fresh coat of wax made a big difference over the 10-kilometer loop. It just turned out that that difference was smaller than the effects of the draft in the pack.
“It was a tactical mistake on my part—on the part of the coaching and service teams that advised them that,” said Chris Grover, the American head coach for the Sochi games. “It’s really disappointing, and I’m disappointed our women didn’t have a chance to show what their true ability is today. That’s for sure on us—on the staff making an incorrect call. “
Stephen still led the American women on Saturday, but she’d wanted much more than a top-25.
She said she watched as the Norwegians passed through the stadium at the end of their first loop and skipped going to the pit area for a pair of skis with new, faster wax.
It was tempting to follow them, she said. But in the past, the decision not to trade in for a new pair has burned the Americans—in a 30-kilometer World Cup race last year in Oslo, Stephen blew through the exchange area and was skiing in podium position, until a pack of women on fresh skis caught her and left her behind, along with a Norwegian skier.
“They were having great races, and they got chewed up and spit out in the last kilometer or so,” Grover said, noting that in Oslo, the loop was shorter than the 10-kilometer lap Saturday—in theory making fresh skis even more of an advantage here.
It turned out that skiing with the pack was just bigger advantage. After the race, Stephen was diplomatic, and clearly some combination of frustrated and disappointed—though she was loathe to say it.
Asked how she felt during the event, she responded: “Today was not my day,” then had to walk away from a group of reporters to collect herself.
When she returned a minute later, she said: “Results are just part of the equation. Certainly, I was hoping to have better ones today, but what can you do? You go out and you try your hardest, and yeah—that’s what I did, and some days it works, and some days it doesn’t.”
The result was especially unsatisfying given that the day, the distance, and the trails here suited Stephen so well.
At 5’2” and 105 pounds, on a course with 3,500 vertical feet of climbing, Stephen had tailored her preparation to the 30-kilometer freestyle. The 50-degree temperatures Saturday didn’t hurt, either.
“It was a dream course for me. And it was slushy, and it was slow and hot—these are all things that I actually like,” she said.
Grover said he though Stephen would have had a “huge day,” or at least a “great day” had the coaching staff given her different tactical advice.
“I don’t know if anyone could have kept up with the top three,” Grover said. But, he added: “For sure, watching the pace of the chase pack, Liz can ski that fast. No doubt about that.”
Randall and Brooks, two of the three other Americans in the race, also switched their skis at the 10-kilometer mark, and both regretted the decision.
Brooks said she was “kicking herself” after she turned into the exchange “like a sheep,” following the woman in front of her.
“Even though I think I saw a bunch of other people go straight, I just couldn’t think on my feet fast enough,” she said.
Brooks said that otherwise she felt “great,” and that the speed of the pack felt reasonable, unlike other races this year in which the pace was a “kick in the shins, right from the start.”
“I don’t think that those girls were skiing that much faster than I was,” she said of the main pack. “Just, when you’re skiing out there by yourself, or with one or two other people, you can’t do it.”
After training for shorter events at the games that didn’t go well—the individual sprint, the team sprint, and her 5-kilometer leg of the women’s relay—Randall said she felt better than she expected to on Saturday.
“It was kind of weird, because this was definitely the race I felt the least prepared for,” she said. While the ski change at 10 kilometers left her chasing the group of women she’d been skiing with earlier in the race, Randall said that she had “good energy” through the end of the race.
“I think this is a turnaround point,” she said.
Jessie Diggins, the fourth U.S. finisher, struggled to 40th place, seven minutes behind the leaders. She got so hot during the race that she yelled from the big climb to one of her coaches: “I need water!”
She got it, but still said afterwards: “The biggest thing I learned from today is that it’s a really good thing I’m not a Summer Olympian, because I do not perform in the heat very well.”
–Chelsea Little and Alex Matthews contributed reporting.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.