SOCHI, Russia – The first three of the 36 cross-country skiing medals at stake at the Sochi Olympics are up for grabs Saturday, as racing begins here with the women’s 15 k pursuit.
Four Americans and three Canadians are entered in the event, which will have the athletes racing four 3.75-kilometer laps on trails at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center –a massive Olympic complex installed at the top of a ridge in Russia’s Western Caucasus Mountains over the last five years.
The North American entrants won’t be serious podium contenders in the pursuit race, which combines equal 7.5-kilometer legs of classic and freestyle skiing.
Kikkan Randall, the U.S.’s best medal hope for the Olympics, is skipping the pursuit, opting to focus on Tuesday’s freestyle sprint — her strongest event.
But the race will still help determine which American women get spots on the country’s relay team later in the games — a group that’s expected to be in the mix for a medal.
And the pursuit will also provide some of the skiers with their first taste of Olympic competition, without too much pressure.
“I’m excited to race in the first race — just kind of get the nerves out right away, and then have some of my stronger races later on in the games when I’m starting to get in the groove of it all,” said Sadie Bjornsen, a rookie Olympian who’s racing for the U.S. on Saturday along with Holly Brooks, Liz Stephen, and Jessie Diggins. “So tomorrow will just be good for practice, and remembering what it’s all about.”
The American athletes arrived in Russia on Tuesday. In brief interviews after a warm, sunny training session Friday afternoon, they said they’ve been happy with their setup at the games.
The women are living in a house that’s part of the Endurance Village — athlete accommodations that were built adjacent to the cross-country skiing and biathlon venues.
The layout gives them easy access to the ski trails — they’re actually within walking distance — with perks like a post office, grocery store, and even a disco.
“We are living like it’s heaven down here,” Bjornsen said. “Everyone’s helpful, the food’s good, the housing is incredible.”
Brilliant sunshine Friday seemed to put almost everyone out on the trails in a good mood.
The forecast calls for blue skies to stick around through Saturday’s race, before more unsettled weather moves in Sunday.
The medal contenders in the women’s pursuit are the usual suspects: Norwegians Marit Bjoergen, Therese Johaug, and Heidi Weng, plus Polish skier Justyna Kowalczyk and Swedish skier Charlotte Kalla.
Bjoergen told the Olympic News Service earlier this week that her goal at the games is to win one medal — but when asked in which event that was the most likely, she answered: “It’s hard to say, because I’m the favorite at every distance.”
One factor that could mix things up — a high-speed downhill on the course, where the American skiers said athletes had been clocked at 45 miles per hour.
At that speed, things could get messy in a mass start race like the pursuit.
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.