Norway’s Marit Bjørgen won a close final in Saturday’s 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprint in Lahti, Finland, while American Kikkan Randall earned her first World Cup podium of the season.
Bjørgen took the final in a time of 2:59.79, barely outlasting teammate Ingvild Flugstad Østberg (+0.14). The two Norwegians are battling for the lead in the overall sprint standings, and Saturday’s victory puts Bjørgen 40 points ahead of Østberg.
It was a great day for the American team, as Randall took third (+0.24) and Jessie Diggins was close behind in fourth (+0.38).
“Lahti has been a good venue for me the last few years so I was looking forward to racing here this week, especially after a personally disappointing World Championships,” Randall wrote in an email to the press.
Randall – who won last year’s skate sprint in Lahti – snuck into the heats, qualifying in 28th. She was 7.87 seconds behind the fastest women’s qualifier, Hanna Falk of Sweden, who posted the top time of3:03.84.
The International Ski Federation (FIS) tested out a new system of assignment for quarterfinal heat selection, as the top-30 athletes were able to choose their quarterfinal heat based on their results in qualifiers. As bib 28, Randall was able to choose between two heats. She decided to go with the heat that featured the top two qualifiers, Falk and Østberg, as she thought being in a fast heat would give her a better chance of moving on.
The strategy worked, as Randall took third in her quarterfinal – just 0.33 seconds behind winner Østberg – and advanced to the semifinals as a lucky loser. In her semifinal, Randall finished 1.29 seconds behind Bjørgen and placed second.
The final featured an exciting and closely contested sprint to the finish between Randall, Bjørgen, Østberg, and Diggins. While Randall could not outsprint the two Norwegians, she held on to collect her best World Cup result of the season and first podium since last year’s victory in Lahti.
“Making the podium today felt really good after such a frustrating season. I’ve always believed I could get back to fighting for the medals but this year has been a lesson in patience,” Randall explained.
She also wrote that it was fun to ski with Diggins in the final, saying they both made use of fast skis.
“My skis were rockets today and that really came in handy on some tactical downhills,” Randall wrote.
Diggins, who is coming off a second-place finish in the 10 k freestyle at the World Championships in Falun, had a strong qualifier, advancing in fifth, 2.60 seconds behind Falk. In her quarterfinal, the first heat, she finished 0.15 seconds behind Germany’s Denise Herrmann before winning her semifinal in 2:59.12, 0.33 seconds ahead of Østberg.
Though she just missed a spot on the podium by placing fourth in the final, Diggins still earned her World Cup career best, excluding World Championships.
The sprint yesterday was so exciting and I was so happy to be in contention for the medals, I wasn’t even bummed out that I didn’t get one, I was just so psyched to be that close and right there in it. And to see Kikkan get back on the podium was really great, I was so happy. And our skis were good all weekend.
Diggins called the sprint “exciting” in a phone interview, and said she was just happy to be in contention for the medals.
“I wasn’t even bummed out that I didn’t get one [a medal]; I was just so psyched to be that close and right there in it,” she said. “And to see Kikkan get back on the podium was really great, I was so happy.”
Meanwhile, the 2015 Overall World Cup champion Bjørgen said she was very pleased about her victory.
“Today was much better than I thought. It is little bit surprising for me to be so good after Falun,” she told FIS. “I am looking forward to the next competition in Lahti and then in Norway.”
Østberg, who failed to reach the podium in her two individual events at World Championships, was also happy with her result. She told FIS that she had to fight to catch back up to Bjørgen in the final after a slow start, and Bjørgen was stronger in the final stretch. “I am happy for Kikkan to be back,” she also added.
The other finalists, Herrmann and Falk, finished in fifth (+2.49) and sixth (+3.64), respectively.
The American team had other skiers race in the qualifiers that did not manage to reach the heats. Sadie Bjornsen qualified in 32nd (+9.31), 0.94 seconds away from a spot in the top 30, while Sophie Caldwell was 34th (+9.94). Ida Sargent was 43rd (+11.35), Liz Stephen took 46th (+12.04), and Caitlin Patterson finished in 51st (+13.92) in her first World Cup race of the season.
Five Canadian skiers also raced, though none qualified. Andrea Dupont led the team in 42nd (+11.27), while Cendrine Browne was 47th (+12.36). Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt took 56th (+17.41), Heidi Widmer was 58th (+18.63), while 21-year-old Dahria Beatty – racing on her birthday – took 65th (+23.76).
The World Cup in Lahti, Finland, continues Sunday with the women’s 10 k and men’s 15 k classic individual starts.