For the second straight day of sprint racing in Dusseldorf, Germany, the American women brought the fireworks.
During the second day of World Cup racing in Dusseldorf, the Norway I team of Mari Eide and Maiken Caspersen Falla took the win. In a surprise move, United States I featuring Sadie Bjornsen and Kikkan Randall crossed the line second, 1.6 seconds back of the Norwegians. The bronze medal went to Natalia Korosteleva and Natalia Matveeva of Russia I, who were 2.1 seconds behind Norway I.
While the Norwegians may have won the gold with an impressive final lap by Caspersen Falla, the story of the day was without a doubt the skiing of Kikkan Randall, paired with World Cup rookie Sadie Bjornsen, who picked up the first-ever Team Sprint medal for the U.S.
From the early going, the American pair, while talented, was going to have to have a good day to make the final.
They were packed into the first semi-final with ten other teams, including the favored Slovenia I with Vesna Fabjan and Katja Visnar, Finland I, Switzerland I, as well as Sweden II and Norway II.
They action in the semi was fast and furious, with the Norwegians and Slovenians both launching attacks at various points. The Americans spent most of the first few laps bouncing around in the mid-pack, never falling out of contact.
Bjornsen picked up the tag in fifth position on her last lap, and dropped a few spots back, but managed to tag off to Randall in a close eighth. Coming out of the exchange zone, Visnar (SLO) and Laure Barthelemy (FRA) made contact, and the Frenchwoman hit the snow hard, dropping her from contention.
Hard on their hills, Randall avoided the pile-up, and skied smoothly down the back straight, gliding up into second. On the final corner, she was challenged by Finn Riika Sarasoja-Lilja, but the American held her off, and churned out a strong finish to earn an automatic qualifying berth in the final behind Hanna Falk of Sweden II, thereby avoiding the agonizing lucky-loser wait.
In the second semi-final, Sweden I with Mia Eriksson and Hanna Brodin broke away from a contact-filled pack on the second last lap, skiing to a 1.4 second victory over Norway I. Canada I managed to secure third spot after Perianne Jones survived a dicey exchange with athletes falling all over the snow, including Germany I and Russia I. Chandra Crawford then skied anchor, and brought the Canucks home 2.4 seconds behind the Swedes in third place, which was good enough for a lucky loser position in the final.
An hour later, the ladies were lined up on the start grid again, awaiting the start of the final.
Just 200 meters in, narrow Dusseldorf claimed another victim, as Mia Eriksson (Sweden I) found herself lying on the snow, and it looked like the race was going to be about staying on your feet.
Bjornsen, who was next to Eriksson, was able to avoid the sprawling Swede, but was forced to slow and change direction slightly. She quickly dropped from the second row off the back of the pack.
The pace was high, with the Swedes and Norwegians both making early bids to spread the field out. On the second lap, the women were stretched out into single-file, with slight gaps appearing in spots. Randall made up some ground for the US, and Bjornsen continued to creep back toward the pack on her second loop.
However, on the third and fourth lap, the paced slacked off a little. While Sweden I and Norway I held strong at the front, the third spot was a revolving door of nations, including the Swiss, the Russians, and the Canadians. The slight down-turn in pace allowed Randall to regain contact with the top group as she made the hand-off, and Bjornsen settled in at the back of the main back as she headed out on her final lap.
The young sprinter managed to hold position, but tagged off to Randall down in sixth place – they were not on the radar, as the battle raged up front between the Finns, Norwegians and Russians.
The group bunched up a little climbing Mount Dusseldorf, and Randall made contact before blasting down the left, making several passes. Caspersen Falla broke contact with the tailing skiers, but Randall fought her way through the remaining traffic, including Canadian Chandra Crawford to lay down yet another incredibly strong finish to pick up the silver medal, leaving Russia I with third.
With the silver, Randall secured her second medal in two days, and continued her blockbuster season that has yet to see her finish out of the top 20.
“It’s just amazing,” said Randall after the race.
“With this course so fast, you had to race every lap like it was the last shot.”
Randall said she focused on skiing smooth, and didn’t worry too much about what place the team was in – she knew she wanted to set herself up for the final lap.
“People were looking stiff on the last lap, and I was still feeling strong,” Kikkan said of her impressive final lap.
After passing several people with what she described as “awesome” skis on the back portion of the course, she came hard around the outside of the last turn and headed for the line.
“I was happy to have a lot left again on the final straight,” she said of her finishing kick.
For Bjornsen, it was her first World Cup team sprint, and her first World Cup medal – the 21 year old was still in shock when FasterSkier talked to her.
“It’s the greatest thing to happen so far!” she said. “It hasn’t even sunk in yet!”
Bjornsen also appreciated the talent of Randall, who managed to secure the medal for the team.
“It helps to have a sprint champion like Kikkan [Randall] on your team, that’s for sure,” said Bjornsen.
While the Team Sprint is notoriously messy in Dusseldorf, both Americans felt the final was much cleaner than the previous heats had been, with skiers being “more calm.” However, Randall did note that the exchange zone was “always a mess.”
In her first team sprint experience, Bjornsen said she barely had time to think about what was happening.
“I was just going with it – it was so quick, and there was so much contact, you just had to react,” she said.
Looking ahead, the Americans hope to carry the momentum from the weekend into the next World Cup races in Davos, Switzerland, on December 10th and 11th.