Kikkan Randall (USA) earned her first World Cup skate sprint podium back in 2007. Seven years and 16 more freestyle top-three results, as well as a World Championships silver, Randall made the same ascent in the classic version of her marquee event.
Starting the day in the red bib of the Sprint Cup leader, a ranking she topped in 2013, Randall told FasterSkier: “I want to represent well, to be one of the best sprinters in the world, so to be able to do it equally in skate and classic has what I have been working toward for a long time. It feels good to make it come true.”
Reigning World Cup Champion Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) was the only woman to best Randall, starting her title defense in fine form. She overtook early leader and eventual third place finisher Denise Herrmann (GER) in the finals, while holding off the hard-charging American.
Kowalczyk qualified eighth, over two seconds behind the fastest woman, rival Marit Bjoergen (NOR). But the Pole had the last laugh, dominating the heats while Bjoergen was knocked out in the quarterfinals.
Herrmann led the finals early, opening a gap of nearly ten meters at times, but with the lone large climb at the end of the short loop, early position mattered little as long as skiers maintained contacted.
For Randall, however, doing just that became a challenge when Celine Brun-Lie (NOR) poled her own ski and went down.
Randall, trailing the Norwegian, was able to “skirt around,” but found herself off the back.
“I really had to fight hard to keep contact with the group and just tried to stay calm and keep skiing relaxed,” Randall said. “And then when we got into the big hill, I just really found a good gear and was able to run up with good energy.”
Herrmann began to falter halfway up the climb as the pitch steepened. Kowalczyk, arguably the best high angle classic climber on the circuit, came speeding by. Looking smoother, Randall also closed, and even appeared to make up ground on the now-leading Kowalczyk.
The German started slipping as the crest approached, leaving the tracks and barely staying in front of Evgenia Shapovalova (RUS).
Over the top the pack was spread, Kowalczyk clear in front, and Randall in good position. Sporting a strong double pole, she held a gap into the final hairpin in the stadium, and accelerated down the homestretch for her first classic sprint podium.
When asked if she expected a podium finish, Randall laughed and said, “I had a feeling that things were in a good place. I had a good training yesterday with the team. I was feeling like I could have a good go today. I wasn’t exactly thinking of a podium, but I was 4th here two years ago so I knew that on a good day it could be a possibility.”
U.S. Ski Team (USST) Head Coach Chris Grover attributes Randall’s success to her ever-increasing fitness, but also her track craft, a critical element of sprint racing.
“In the last few years she has really come into her overall form in terms of strength, her aerobic fitness, her anaerobic fitness, but also her tactical knowledge is just unsurpassed,” Grover told FasterSkier.
He pointed to Brun-Lie’s crash today, as well as similar fall by the same athlete last week in the Beitostolen FIS sprint.
“She [Randall] has avoided that crash and avoided the athlete that has gone down and gone on to reach the podium,” Grover continued. “Less experienced athletes don’t see it coming, don’t react that quickly, don’t have the skills to react that fast.”
Last year Randall entered the season coming off an injury that hampered her preparation. With the ability to train freely, she was able to do more running and bounding, elements that she said helped her classic sprinting.
Overall she said she has been getting more and more consistent in the technique, and while she points to steeper climbs and a powerful finish as strong points, the ability to compete in all stages of the short event have allowed Randall to climb the ranks.
Those who have followed Randall’s impressive career will no doubt be aware of the interesting dichotomy of her sprint and distance/classic and skate. While she excelled in skate sprinting, her top results in the longer distances initially came in classic, an oddity that Randall herself could not explain.
“It was almost a little bit puzzling for a while,” she said. “I am not really sure what happened — all of a sudden the distance skating got better and now the classic sprinting is getting stronger. I think it is a little bit of technique and body position and your body just adapts different strengths over the years and years of training. And now it is cool to have that complete package.”
Grover was unsurprised to see his star set a new personal best. With some impressive classic results last year, including fourth in this same event, and the fastest classic leg of the day in a Gallivare relay where the U.S. placed third, Randall showed the coach a glimpse of the future.
It was “just a matter of time” before she ended up where she is today, Grover said.
USST Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb was even more direct.
“Kikkan is our textbook example of what we want every nordic athlete in the U.S. to believe: it just takes time, patience, hard work and great programming [at the club level],” Whitcomb said.
“So while today was her first podium in classic sprinting, no of course this was not a surprise,” he continued. “She is Kikkan Randall and this is a really difficult sprint course where even World Cup athletes are fading throughout the rounds — where Kikkan is just getting stronger and stronger.”
Perfect Conditions and a Straightforward Course
According to Randall, firm snow and cold temperatures made for “really great classic conditions.” The Alaska native was unbothered by the frigid temperatures and had plenty of experience on the Kuusamo sprint course.
Grover counts at least eight starts for the U.S. veteran, and while there have been a few changes over the years, the big downhill out of the start and the final climb and hairpin in the stadium have remained constant.
He described the loop as “really straightforward,” noting the lack of twists and turns.
“There is very little contact out there,” Grover said. “There is almost never any broken equipment. People tend to fall down just because they hit an icy spot, but it is probably one of the least tactical sprints that we do.”
But that does not negate Randall’s savvy. Sprint racing can turn on the dime, course aside, and Randall has proved herself one of the all-time best.
“She has that sixth sense now in terms in how to stay out of trouble,” Grover explained. “You know you see that with the veteran sprinters, but you don’t see that with our younger crew, who often are qualifying fast, but don’t know how to progress through a quarterfinal…It often takes some time to get that awareness. About how to stay out of trouble how to see the open lane.
“She’s pro, man, she knows how to ski it.”
A Strong Start
After seven months of hard training, but few “no doubt” benchmarks, Randall was thrilled to start the season with a standout performance.
“You can kind of have a general feeling that things are going pretty well … but it is very anxious by the time you get to the race season,” she said, adding that there is an extra boost of confidence when she sees “Everything is on track.”
That leaves her in strong position heading into Saturday’s 5k classic, an event she describes as “an enigma for me.”
Sometimes it can go well, sometimes not. But she will be starting at the back of the field and able to receive good splits.
“It is 5 k so just have to go out there and ski really hard,” she said. “If I can have the same skis I had today and the feelings, I think it can be a good race.”
Further down the line await the big focus of the season — the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
At this point, Randall is the favorite in the individual skate sprint, but now the U.S. has to be considered a medal threat in the team sprint, an event the Americans claimed gold in at the 2013 World Championships, albeit in the freestyle technique.
Two of Randall’s potential partners, Ida Sargent and Sadie Bjornsen, had strong days, serving notice that the switch to classic technique may not be an issue.
Bjornsen turned heads with her third place qualification time, and Sargent just missed advancing out the quarterfinals, bounced by eventual winner Kowalczyk, and Ida Ingemarsdotter (SWE), who also appeared in the finals.
“I really think that if we show up in Sochi feeling good and that we get the skis right on that day we can be in the hunt for a medal,” Randall said.
Regardless, Randall has already secured her place in history with a list of achievements that grew longer today.
This was not missed by Whitcomb, who recognizes what a special time this is for U.S. skiing and how Randall stacks up over time.
“She is someone we are going to be talking about for a hundred years and this is when she is shining.”
– Matt Voisin contributed reporting