SOCHI, Russia — So much leading up to Tuesday’s freestyle sprint — the lone individual sprint at the 2014 Olympics — had been geared toward Kikkan Randall winning. The chances of her doing so, what she’d have to do to beat Marit Bjørgen, to beat everyone tactically and powerfully on a course she’d memorized many times over since racing it last year.
Few, if any, considered that she might not make the final — let alone semifinals. Joey Caterinichio, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association nordic program director, had brought an American flag to present Randall at the finish.
Yet in a sprint, where any athlete will tell you that anything can happen, it’s always a possibility. And for Randall in her signature event, the one she had been working toward since placing ninth eight years ago at the 2006 Torino Games (and eighth in the 2010 Olympics classic sprint), it was a reality on Tuesday.
After qualifying in 18th, 4.6 seconds behind the preliminary winner Maiken Caspersen Falla of Norway, Randall was one of the overall-race favorites in a stacked quarterfinal that included Norway’s Marit Bjørgen and Germany’s Denise Herrmann, who qualified in third and eighth, respectively.
The 31-year-old Anchorage native got off to a strong start in the last quarterfinal, tucking into second behind Finland’s Mona-Liisa Malvalehto before the first and only (albeit steep) hill on the 1.3 k course. Randall passed Malvalehto over the top, while Bjørgen followed to move to second.
Herrmann hovered in third then used her momentum and reserves to pounce on the final corner, overtaking Bjørgen and Randalls soon after. Bjørgen was next to pass Randall on the drawn-out finishing stretch and Randall slipped to third. Fighting to hold off Italy’s Gaia Vuerich, Randall missed out on the photo finish for third.
The heat was the second-fastest of five quarterfinals, and Vuerich took the final lucky loser spot in third, 0.78 seconds behind Herrmann in first and Bjørgen in second. Randall was fourth, five-hundredths of a second behind Vuerich. For nearly a minute, everyone at the Laura Olympic cross-country stadium waited for the outcome of Randall’s fate.
Finally, it was announced: the four-time Olympian, who was pinned as the U.S. cross-country skiing’s best chance at ending a 38-year medal drought (since Bill Koch’s silver), would not advance to the semifinals. Randall made it through a barrage of interviews before breaking into tears halfway through, away from reporters. After collecting herself moments later, she said the reality of the result hadn’t quite sunk in yet, but she was sure it would hurt for a while.
“I’ve been thinking about this race for a long time,” Randall said. “I felt really strong and ready to go today and I’ve always said my number-one goal is to come in ready to go and ready to fight for the medal and give it everything I had, and I did do that today.”
Looking at her quarterfinal, she knew her work was cut out for her and made the tactical decision to lead over the top of the hill — a classic Randall move. Coming into the stadium she said she was feeling good, ready to come off that turn, but when she did, that final gear simply wasn’t there.
“Unfortunately I fell apart a little bit at the finish and didn’t get that lunge in,” Randall said. “[Five] hundredths of a second is an incredibly close margin and I’m sure I’ll be reliving those moments hundreds of times in my head.”
At the end of the day, she was 18th overall.
“It’s tough when you get one shot at this every eight years, and sprints especially are always a little bit tough with strategy and everything that can happen,” she explained. “I’m sure it’ll sink in a little bit and sting for a while, but I’m still happy with the way I came into this and I gave it my all.”
Three years ago at the World Championships in Oslo, Norway, Randall fell in her quarterfinal and ended up 26th. She hadn’t missed out on a skate-sprint semifinal since.
“In Oslo when I fell in the sprint, that was the one shot the whole team had at a medal, you could just feel just this wave of disappointment,” she said. “That was only three years ago, and in that amount of time, the team has transformed and now we have multiple hopes coming in. Having a great team around me and having so many successes to look forward to … it makes some of these tough days for some of us a little bit easier when you’ve got good things to celebrate all around.”
All four Americans made the heats on Tuesday, with Sophie Caldwell placing ninth in the qualifier, Jessie Diggins advancing in 12th, Randall in 18th, and Ida Sargent also making the top 30 in 26th.
Randall said she felt like she had energy to burn in her quarterfinal and described her skis as great; even the moves she made as sensible at the time.
“Of course taking the lead makes it so those behind you can conserve a little more energy,” Randall said. “Usually that works for me, but today that final gear wasn’t quite there. Hopefully the effort today will bring that around for the next race.”
Diggins, who placed third in her heat behind Katja Visnar and Caldwell, respectively, appeared to fight tears after being eliminated in the quarterfinals as well. She ended up 12th, but it wasn’t her race she was emotional about.
“My energy was also really focused toward some of my teammates today,” Diggins said, three days after notching the U.S. women’s best Olympic distance result of eighth in the 15 k skiathlon.
“Anyone can be a fantastic sportswoman when they win but when something disappointing happens, to see [Kikkan] put on a smile and say, ‘You know what? I skied the best I could and I’m proud of that,’ that is so inspiring. That’s even more important than winning and being able to lose with extreme grace and amazing sportsmanship.”
Caldwell went on to place sixth for the best-ever Olympic result by an American woman in nordic skiing. Sargent was fourth in her quarterfinal and finished 19th.
“Right before I went in, Kikkan came up and gave me a big hug, which helped a lot,” Caldwell said.
“Of course she’s disappointed with today, but you can also see that she really appreciates Sophie’s result,” said Erik Flora, Randall’s coach at Alaska Pacific University. “After this all happened … we watched the race proceed. She was cheering for Sophie, so it was an incredible day.”
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.