Perched over her poles before the start of Saturday’s freestyle sprint in Lahti, Finland, Kikkan Randall smiled from ear to ear for the cameras, with the same pink-haired, cheery persona that she’s displayed before essentially every race this season — and over the last several years.
It was the look that’s landed Randall, the 31-year-old U.S. Ski Team leader, sponsorships with major sandwich and cereal chains, and was reminiscent of how she appeared before the start of her last freestyle sprint at the Olympics.
After flashing her ever-excited grin, she shot out of the gates in the Olympic quarterfinal and attacked the first climb on an unforgiving course in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. After that, Randall struggled to hold on to an automatic top-two qualifying spot down the finishing stretch, and ended up bounced in fourth.
It was the first time she hadn’t advanced to the semifinals in a skate sprint in three years.
Three Olympic races and two and a half weeks later, Randall was back at the World Cup on Saturday in the last freestyle sprint of the season. After qualifying in 11th, she appeared relaxed throughout her heats, and just as eager as ever at the start of the final.
Randall had executed as expected on a tactical course in Lahti, one that was relatively narrow and getting more chewed up as the afternoon lingered in temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
After following the qualifier winner, Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, around the rolling 1.55-kilometer course for most of the quarterfinal, Randall went from second to first by threading her way through the inside lane around a final hairpin corner then surging ahead of Østberg over one of the final bumps in the stadium. Randall won the heat by 0.25 seconds over Østberg in 2:50.92, nearly five seconds faster than what Randall had qualified in.
The time proved to be the fastest of any of the quarterfinals by almost three seconds, which enabled the third- and fourth-place finishers in that quarterfinal — Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla and Russia’s Anastasia Dotsenko — to advance as well.
Meanwhile, Sophie Caldwell, who achieved the Americans’ top result in sixth at the Olympics (and a best-ever Olympic showing by a U.S. woman) qualified in 25th and later said she made a point to relax for the rounds.
This course wasn’t going to favor anyone who tensed up in the squirrelly snow, and Caldwell, 23, did her best to focus on the openings, seek out the firmer parts of the track, and basically float over it.
“It was skiing in like a foot of sugar,” Caldwell said. “Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it was really soft and really sugary.”
Her attention to detail worked as she skied in third early in her quarterfinal, moved up to second, then challenged Sweden’s Hanna Falk for the win. Falk stayed ahead to finish first by 0.23 seconds over Caldwell, and both advanced to the semifinals.
There, Randall and Caldwell faced off against Slovenia’s Vesna Fabjan, Italy’s Gaia Vuerich, Østberg and Kalla.
Fabjan took the lead over the most significant climb in the middle of the course, after a misstep by Kalla over the top dropped the Swede back to third. As all six women converged on the hairpin corner, Kalla lost her balance again, this time, falling face down into the mashed-potato snow. Caldwell and Randall narrowly dodged the crash on the inside of the corner, as did Vuerich, who followed the Americans, but Østberg directly behind had no time to react and toppled over Kalla.
With four women still standing and racing away to the finish, Caldwell didn’t rule out that Kalla and Østberg could potentially catch up. While Randall accelerated after Fabjan to the finish, Caldwell skied behind them, trying to close the gap hold off Vuerich and anyone else to the line. Fabjan won the heat by 0.45 seconds over Randall, and Caldwell was another 0.45 back in third.
Vuerich finished fourth, 0.49 seconds after Caldwell, and Østberg and Kalla were 9 and 16 seconds back, respectively, in fifth and sixth.
The second women’s semifinal was 2.65 seconds slower. Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla won it after hovering in third before the final rolling stretch to the finish. Slovenia’s Katja Visnar took second, 0.17 seconds back, and two Swedes, Marika Sundin and Falk contended in a photo finish for third. Sundin got it by one-hundredth of a second, but the heat’s time was not fast enough to advance her to the final.
Boxed out early and in last place for much of the race, Norway’s Marit Bjørgen ended up fifth, 0.76 seconds behind Falla, after finally getting past Dotsenko. The most successful Norwegian nordic skier’s run would end there — much like it did for Bjørgen in the Olympic skate-sprint semifinals.
However, Caldwell did move on, along with Vuerich.
In the final, Falla took charge early, leading over the first rise. Fabjan challenged up the inside lane of the climb, but tripped up in the soft snow, putting her behind her teammate, Visnar, as well as Vuerich and Randall. Caldwell moved into fourth before the infamous corner and emerged out of it in the same position — just as Randall was starting to turn it up.
Attacking before the final bump in the stadium, Randall surged ahead of Visnar. While the Slovenian chased her in second, Vuerich raced for a podium in third. It appeared the she wasn’t entirely aware of Caldwell’s whereabouts, as the American pushed down the finishing stretch and outlunged her by three-hundredths of a second.
Randall locked up the win in 2:56.53, half a second ahead of Visnar, who achieved her first World Cup podium since 2011.
Caldwell was 0.9 seconds back in third for another historic day for the U.S. — two women on the podium. No other U.S. woman except Randall had ever achieved an outright individual (non-stage) World Cup top three.
Lying on the ground trying to catch her breath, Caldwell wasn’t sure where she ended up. She didn’t even know where to look to find out.
Then she heard Randall.
“Kik just screamed, ‘You just caught a podium!’ ” Caldwell recalled.
It was her first World Cup podium in her rookie year on the U.S. Ski Team, less than two years after graduating Dartmouth College.
Randall had scored her third World Cup victory of the season and fourth individual podium — all of which came in skate sprints — which put her at the top of the World Cup sprint standings, 36 points ahead of Germany’s Denise Herrmann, with two classic races left on the circuit.
A year ago, Randall won the same sprint in Lahti.
“I am glad the good race feelings are back and I’m hoping to find the strong classic form I had at the beginning of the season,” Randall wrote in an email. “I knew I needed a big race today so it’s great to have a chance to defend the globe now!
“It’s of course a big bummer that I had that lull in my shape during the Olympics,” she added. “I’m still not quite sure what went wrong. But at least I’m coming back into form so I can hopefully end the season on a good note.”
Caldwell said her entire season has exceeded her expectations since going pro last season. In terms of peaking, she never really had a plan until this year. In college, it was all about skiing as fast as possible over a few months, and last year, she was trying to earn World Cup starts with top early season SuperTour results.
This season, she and her Stratton Mountain School T2 Team coach, Gus Kaeding, planned something similar since it worked the year before.
“It definitely wasn’t rocket science,” Caldwell said. “It worked out well because it wasn’t complicated.”
The key to her success on Saturday stemmed from her ability to learn as she progressed through the heats — about where the snow was more skiable and where she’d find opportunities to pass.
U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb said that Caldwell can find success on any given day in any conditions, but “the more difficult it becomes, the better Sophie can do.”
“She was the only one out there today that she’d be in sixth then she’d be in second, then she’d be in fourth,” Whitcomb recalled. “She can move through a pack so incredibly well. Sophie can have a bad start and with one decisive move through a corner or through a slushy section… move [up]. … It was fun to watch her today.”
Caldwell’s shining moment came with her last-ditch lunge past Vuerich. She recalled how many of those she’s lost in the past — at NCAA Championships, at last year’s Slavic Cup — and how she’s been working on them in most of her interval and speed workouts since.
“[I’d] look at pictures of myself like, ‘What am I doing?’ and I’m basically lunging with my nose,” she said. “Today I put my weight back, pushed my ski forward and somehow managed to time it perfectly.”
Caldwell saw the replay of her lunge — it looked good, she said with a laugh.
“I’ve always dreamed of getting a World Cup podium, but I definitely didn’t think it was going to happen this year,” she said. “I was surprised to find myself in any sprint final this year.”
She made four sprint finals, including Saturday’s and the Olympics.
“I couldn’t imagine a better way to get my first podium with a teammate, especially Kikkan, someone I’ve looked up to so long,” she said. “I basically was asking her some questions [after the race about where to go, etc.] … and I was like, ‘Is it OK, if i just follow you everywhere?’ ”
Randall said absolutely.
“It was super fun to share the podium with my teammate today,” Randall wrote. “Sophie is having an incredible breakthrough season and it’s so fun to head to the start with your teammate. I’m super impressed with her trajectory and I’m looking forward to pushing each other and the other girls to the next level!”
Whitcomb explained their first World Cup race back was exactly what the team needed after an Olympics that, for most, left something to be desired.
“In some ways it’s unfortunate timing and in other ways it’s perfect timing,” he said. “I’m really proud of the team, not just for today’s result, but kind of what led to the result.”
Sochi was a test of resilience, he explained. Mental state or preparation was never an issue, especially at the start of each race, Whitcomb said. That’s what impressed him most. When his athletes’ performances didn’t match their expectations, “Everyone [held] their heads proud … always ready to take that next swing.”
“We were ready again today; we weren’t tired, we were ready to see the opening and jump through it,” he said. “Two girls on the podium was a result of our Olympic team never getting beaten down.”
Mostly, he was extremely happy for Randall and Caldwell. Randall had managed to stay healthy and find energy in the last week, despite being on a team stricken with illness since (and during) Sochi. Caldwell rallied while battling a cold she came down with halfway through the Olympics.
“Kikkan’s feeling like herself again,” Whitcomb said. “Getting a little bit of her Kikkan stride back again in the start pen.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.