GÄLLIVARE, Sweden – To here the top three women from today’s 10 k freestyle race tell it, none of them expected to win.
Marit Bjørgen of Norway, the hands-down favorite coming into this first weekend of World Cup racing after winning the opening race last year as well as the overall World Cup, said that she would have been happy just to be on the podium.
Despite the weight of expectations after trouncing Bjørgen twice at FIS races in Beitostolen, Norway, last weekend, teammate Therese Johaug knew that things would be different here in Gällivare. No way did she expect to beat Bjørgen, who is widely acknowledged to be the greatest female skier of all time and has won well over 50 World Cup races.
And Kikkan Randall? The American only did her first ski-specific intensity session of the season last week, and it didn’t feel great. Last year’s Sprint Cup winner had never been on the podium in a distance race, and certainly wasn’t expecting to do so today, not after spending the fall healing a stress fracture that kept her from training how she would have liked.
But Bjørgen led from wire to wire, finishing with an twelve-second victory over Johaug.
“I have been in this game for a long time, so I really want to be on the top, but I always know that it is going to be hard,” the Norwegian star said in a press conference. “But I really wanted to go hard today. It was eight seconds at two kilometers and I think still eight seconds at eight kilometers, so I was pushing really hard and I am happy with the race.”
As for Johaug, her second place finish was plenty good enough. The course here suits Bjørgen well, she said, and it’s hard to beat the veteran with that going in her favor.
“I know that Marit is a strong athlete, and last weekend I won only by eight seconds,” Johaug said in the press conference. “Today she won. The course here is a little bit different than Beitostolen, it is a lot of curves. I think the course here was not the best for me, but I tried to push and am really happy with second place today… I feel that the shape was really good.”
After the early starters had finished, it was Holly Brooks of the United States sitting in the leaders chair. Assigned bib eight, she held onto her lead until teammate Randall crossed the finish line in bib 56. And then, although Charlotte Kalla of Sweden made a hard charge towards the top, Randall held onto the lead until the Norwegians finished. She only ended up one second ahead of Kalla.
It’s not bad for an athlete who told FasterSkier just days ago that she was going to race her way into shape.
“It sounds like I was making up a big story, but I’m telling you, the way I felt last week on skis, it felt so far from the normal race feeling,” Randall said in an interview after the race. “All I could think about was all the workouts I normally would have done up to that point, and how normally I would feel so prepared, and this time I just felt like a kid who didn’t do their homework.”
The goal for today’s race, she said, was just to get in a good workout so that she could eventually be in the sort of shape that netted her the Sprint Cup last season. When U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb told her at one point that she was fighting for a podium, she thought, “well that’s nice, but there’s no possible way.”
A distance podium has been in her sights for a while, as she wants to be a more well-rounded competitor and not merely a sprint specialist.
“Last year when I was starting to get some top-10s, I thought, wow, maybe if I really have a good race next year I could get a podium,” she said in the press conference. “But I was not feeling close to that kind of form at all. So this is a really nice surprise.”
When the FIS interviewer asked her if she was hoping to make a run at the overall World Cup trophy one of these years, Randall laughed.
“It has been really fun having the crystal globe back in the U.S. this year, and a bigger one would be really nice too!” she replied. “I think it’s great to feel competitive every weekend, and I have always wanted to be competitive in distacne as well, so this is a step in that right direction.”
Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, the runner up in last year’s World Cup and often a contender to take the victory from Bjørgen, struggled and placed 27th. After she won two distance races in Muonio, Finland, last weekend, it was surprising to see the several-time Tour de Ski winner so far down the results list.
“It’s not the same track,” Kowalczyk told FasterSkier at the finish line. “Muonio was a really good track for me, really hard, and here it’s all up, down, corners, up, down corners, it’s not so good. But of course I’m not satisfied with this race. 27th place is my worst in the last four years, maybe. So it’s a really bad race for me.”
Nevertheless, she seldom starts the season strong in these World Cup openers, yet gains momentum and is winning races a few weeks later.
“Step by step it will get better, I’m sure,” she said. “My last three or four months was really hard and I think that I must rest a little bit, and then it will be better.”
Instead of Kowalczyk, it was Brooks who rounded out the top five. And if Randall was surprised to be on the podium, then it would be difficult to describe Brooks’ reaction to her result.
“I’m in shock, I still can’t believe it,” she said after the race. “I don’t even know what to say. Bjørgen, Johaug, Kikkan, Kalla, and then me? That just doesn’t happen… I’m ecstatic. I’ve never been top ten before and now I’m fifth, and I think I was, what, three seconds away from the podium? That’s not real!”
Brooks told FasterSkier that she thought she had an advantage with her early start position. Although it had been spitting tiny rain-like snow crystals earlier in the morning, by the middle of the race the precipitation changed to large, wet flakes; several athletes reported difficulty seeing in the snow. But Brooks avoided most of that – a nice benefit, since she was initially disappointed with her early bib.
“I actually wanted to start a little bit later, and when I looked at my starting spot and did the math, I was hoping that I would loop through with some of the really fast skiers,” she told FasterSkier. “I think I came a little bit before the seeded group, so it was kind of like, eh, hopefully I’ll be there soon.”
Her attitude towards these races was typical: it’s the first competition of the season, some athletes start strong, and others don’t. You never know what can happen, but this was further out of the realm of possibility than most outcomes she might have envisioned.
“A lot more confidence [than at this time last year], and I have a lot of World Cups under my belt now,” she said. “But it being the beginning of the year, you have no idea. It’s like a black box. I really had some anxiety coming into the race; you could be 60th. Coming into it, my goal was just to be in the points, to be top 30. I had no idea that this could happen.”
For more from Randall, Brooks, and the other U.S. women, stay tuned for a separate article.