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.”
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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.
February 11, 2014 at 10:50 am
Soft snow favors lighter skiers and doesn’t reward skiing from the front, at least as far as Sochi’s sprint course is concerned.
February 11, 2014 at 11:55 am
Kikkan, Jessie, Sophie, and Ida inspired a heck of a lot of people all over this country to wake up in the middle of the night to watch this race. That’s powerful! Here’s hoping Kikkan and company get a medal in the relays.
February 11, 2014 at 12:23 pm
they still have a good shot at possible podium in the relay…I think Sophie C. should ski one of the classic legs, as she has the speed, and can carry mental “high” from todays result. Randall, Jessie skate legs, Sophie, Sadie ski classic would be my choice.
February 11, 2014 at 12:25 pm
Completely understand the focus on the spectacular Kikkan (so sorry for her disappointment), though I’m not sure I understand why the news that we just had the best Olympic result ever by an American female nordic wasn’t mentioned until 20 paragraphs in. Sophie’s result (even with her fall in the final) is worth huge celebration!
February 11, 2014 at 12:31 pm
katete, I’m sure Sophie has her own extensive article about to be published! A quirk of internet rather than printed news source. Don’t begrudge Kikkan her due.
February 11, 2014 at 12:36 pm
Omg… We got up to see it live too. So disappointing… For a lot of racers and fans.
I’m not convinced the fastest “skiers” won… Was that real snow, did they salt it?
Ugh, the Olympics suck, why doesn’t the media cover World Cup Cross Country Skiing.
February 11, 2014 at 12:54 pm
valaasla, I am sure there will be a wonderful article, and I can’t wait! Just pointing out that if it Sophie’s result was going to be mentioned, it could have been earlier.
Feel very lucky to now live in a time where there is the chance to be an American and watch these races live, and to have an American site like Faster.Skier with reporters on the ground/snow at the Olympics!
February 11, 2014 at 5:58 pm
The difference between Norway and US is that we are getting excited about a best ever 6th place finish………… In Norway a 6th place finish would probably mean a firing of staff and a huge shakeup of the team. Results often parallel expectations. No American would be excited about a 6th place Alpine event result. The team has made progress, but today was personally very disappointing to watch. No medal today has left getting a cross country Olympic medal this go round in big jeopardy. I think we can all agree if the result is no medals that is a significant under achievement.
February 11, 2014 at 6:32 pm
Absolutely no disappointment. Sport happens and one day or event will not define Kikkan. She led the women’s program from the darkness over the past decade. A medal will neither add nor detract from what she has done for our sport. Nice, yes–but she cannot be defined by one day. Her true accomplishments come from the years she toiled with the US effort squarely on her shoulders. She has personally elevated our sport to new heights and inspired a legion of mini-Kikkanimals. Her achievements will be seen in the future medals of her younger teammates and in the thousands she has inspired. She is a true warrior and has pulled all of us up with her effort. She has made certain that her team will fight another day. Head High, be Proud.
February 11, 2014 at 10:02 pm
I watched with a living room crammed full of Kikkan’s high school teammates, coaches, and parents. We are all proud and elated to have the opportunity to cheer, be tense, and crushed while sitting at the edge of our seats. This is the soul of racing at it’s peak. Pulling an all-nighter to watch live is a side-note. Thanks Kikkan, and also thank you Sophie!
February 11, 2014 at 10:26 pm
Yes, Mr. Miller, Train Wreck; both said it well. Team effort and work ethic was a major factor in getting one of the US women into a position to win a gold medal in XC today, for real. KR is the team leader. No one is disappointed in you.
February 12, 2014 at 10:08 am
I have nothing against Kikkan Randal but i like to think karma of the current USA coaches finally are getting what they deserved…
Since they should have offered USA skiers all the available quota spots and now its clear they should have mentally prepared Kikkan alot better for her focus events..
I saw Kikkans race tactics in that last world cup sprint a week ago were good if she racing against total beginners but not against any equal level competition.. Attempting leading every sprint heat from very beginning to end is just ridiculous if Ur not always just gaping the pack right from the start line to win easily and rest while coming to the line .. Not like she did by wearing herself down more & more all the way through each heat through to the finals.
February 12, 2014 at 11:21 am
I guess nycxcskier should probably coach the team. They know what’s best. It’s all so easy from behind the internet keyboard.
If memory serves me right, both Hattestad and Falla led ( and won) all their heats from the front. Given all the crashes, this seemed wise. Bummed the strategy didn’t work for Kikkan, but I’d sure never assume I knew more than she or her coaches……unlike some of us, apparently. Karma it’s not; misplaced schadenfreude does not flatter you, nycxcskier! Good luck in upcoming races, Kikkan.
February 12, 2014 at 11:45 am
Its a close race for most ignorant comments between xcskier007 and nycxcskier…. nycxcskier has taken it out fast. can he/she hold the lead?
February 12, 2014 at 1:50 pm
Big Joe rocks!!!
February 12, 2014 at 9:10 pm
only i think its possibly ignorant of me posting personal opinions in this forum that maybe is read by close friends of the USST coaches themselves ? But when the truth hurts enough i would expect those kinda reactions… …
The Olympics for political is always the worlds largest stage for any & all obscure sports from ribbon twirling to sliding a tea kettle across an ice rink ( Uuuh can U sense im not even a fan of the modern olympics )….. but although we here might follow xc ski racing in between these every 4 yrs. big bashes , those USA olympic skiers that compete over there will be largely remembered rest of their lives in the media by just their successes & failure during this couple weeks in Sochi no matter how many world cup titles they win…. We all know Kikkan is one of the fastest xc ski sprinters in the world , but only right now its still confined into Us true followers of the sport who only glance at these certain Olympic events which NBC might choose to broadcast at this moment…. And as true follower of this sport sport , we all know that anything less than getting a medal in the olympics means virtually nothing to our general American sport fans overall.. I like Big Joes comment and i was planning to bide my time to more play a more tactical game to the finish line, but i see a opening here and so Yes im attacking again !
February 12, 2014 at 9:19 pm
nycxcskier, i don’t agree with you about race tactics. If you re-watch the race you will see that Fabjan, Falla, Oestberg all led from start to finish in every heat and in the end were 1,2,3. This was not a bad tactic. Hattestad employed the same tactic with good success as well. It was just too risky to be in the back as we saw with Kriukov, Ustygov, Hellner, Bjoergen, Brandsdall. For other people the course was just too difficult endurance wise as we saw with favorites like Northug, Pellegrino, Joensson. Also, the fastest qualifiers, as another commenter pointed out, were the ones who made it to the final and ultimately won (Hattestad and Falla).
February 12, 2014 at 9:41 pm
Touche NYCity boy. I can assure you I am virtually unknown to and unknowing of the USST staff. And indeed far from a USST bootlicker. Just seems silly to nitpick tactics. KR had an off day. It happens in sport. Unfortunate that it happened on the biggest day… I suspect it is indeed a rare and perhaps freakish human that can consistently summons all the best on the one big day. That only highlights their height rather than diminish those who slip a little.