Davos, Switzerland — Marit who?
At least that’s how it appeared in the World Cup in Davos, Switzerland, on Sunday, during the 1.5 k freestyle sprint, as it was American Kikkan Randall who destroyed the field rather than the usual Marit Bjoergen devastation.
The Alaskan native blasted her way to her second consecutive World Cup sprint victory of the year, skiing away from the other five women in the final, leaving Russian Natalia Matveeva to grab second place, just ahead of Maiken Caspersen Falla (NOR).
Straight from the qualifier, it was obvious Randall was going to be tough to beat. In the two-lap 1.5 k course, she started just two skiers back of Bjoergen. Ater the Norwegian set the second-fastest qualifying time behind Natalia Matveeva, the U.S. Ski Team (USST) veteran swooped in and stopped the clock.
Randall was 0.11 seconds faster than the Russian – and almost a full second up on Bjoergen – in winning the qualifier.
As the top seed, Randall was placed in the first quarter-final, and skied strongly from the gun. After taking control, and using her smooth V2 to cruise, only Caspersen Falla was able to stay reasonably close. Randall easily took the win, advancing through to the semi-finals.
In the semi-final, Randall was matched up against some strong competition: 2007 sprint World Champion Astrid Jacobsen (NOR), and Dusseldorf surprise bronze-medal winner and Davos native Laurien Van Der Graaf (SUI) both qualified through to the next round.
But they might as well have been J2s for all they could do against Randall.
Taking the lead from the gun, Randall avoided the traffic on the first corner — a hairy 180-degree bend that curved straight into the only real climb on the course. After attacking the hill hard, she never looked back, stretching the field into a single line behind her as she built a massive lead to win comfortably by over a second, punching a ticket to her third sprint final of the year.
Bjoergen was in the second semi-final. Owner of 49 World Cup victories and undefeated on the season, the seemingly invincible Norwegian seemed poised to qualify for the final, and create the Randall-Bjoergen face off that the fans desired.
But with the red-hot Russian Natalia Matveeva as well as arch-rival Justyna Kowalczyk, and surprising Vibeke Skofterud (NOR), Bjoergen was not a lock.
And early on, it was clear that Bjoergen was not going to dominate the heat. Kowalczyk squeezed into the lead around the first corner, and tore hell-bent up the first climb — only Matveeva and Canadian Chandra Crawford were able to keep pace. Bjoergen was left at the back as they rounded the corner and headed for the second lap, giving her just 750 meters to find her way into a qualifying position — not unheard of, but certainly difficult, even for Bjoergen.
As Kowalczyk and Crawford began to tire, paying for their first-lap enthusiasm, Matveeva pushed the pace, opening up a large gap on the downhill. Sweden’s Hanna Brodin found herself in second place rounding the final turn, with a couple of meters gap back to Kowalczk and the hard-charging Bjoergen.
Bjoergen sling-shotted around the corner in Kowalczyk’s wake, and narrowly passed the Pole in the charge to the line, finishing third. Her late charge was impressive, but not quite good enough — the first semi was quicker, robbing Bjoergen of a spot in the final as the lucky loser.
The streak was over, but the final was still to come. The 9,000-strong crowd, heavy with Norwegian and Swiss fans, were waiting to see who would supplant Bjoergen on the top step of the podium.
The Norwegians had Maiken Caspersen Falla and Heidi Weng to support. Weng (World Junior Champion last year in the 10 k pursuit) barely qualified for the heats; she finished 30th in the individual start, just 0.08 of a second separated her from 31st place Yelena Kolomina (KAZ). Just 21 years old, Caspersen Falla is a strong skate sprinter — she has two World Cup medals in skate sprints in her short time on the circuit.
Meanwhile, the Swiss were excited about Davos native Laurien Van Der Graaf, who had her break-through World Cup race last weekend in Dusseldorf, Germany, where she collected the bronze medal. Van Der Graaf qualified fourth, and the young woman had the crowd on her side.
Hanna Brodin (SWE) and Matveeva rounded out the final, the latter riding a hot streak similar to Randall’s after finishing second to the American last weekend in Dusseldorf.
Matveeva led the way out of the tracks, skiing neck-in-neck with Randall approaching the first corner. The two climbed the hill together, and Randall pushed hard over the top, and rode a pair of fast skis into the lead on the downhill section of the course, taking the lead into the second lap.
Matveeva closed up the gap instantly and took the lead, while Caspersen Falla, Van Der Graaf and Brodin all packed in tightly just behind Randall. As the group rounded the 180-degree corner, it looked like the race was going to go down to the wire. But Randall instantly launched a massive attack on the hill, powerfully hop-skating her way to the top. Only Matveeva was able to stay close, but as the two crested the hill, Randall refused to let up, hammering her way down the backside. As a result, the current Sprint Cup leader built a 50 meter lead on the field with half a lap to go — and still she kept charging.
As she rounded the final corner and sprinted for the line, it was clear that Randall was untouchable. Matveeva and Caspersen Falla were left to pick up the pieces as Randall cruised to the finish, letting up only briefly to celebrate before crossing the line 1.7 seconds clear of the competition.
A fading Matveeva just barely managed to out-last the fast-finishing Caspersen Falla at the line to collect her second silver medal in as many weekends. Sweden’s Brodin finished fourth, 2.5 seconds behind, while Van Der Graaff had to settle for fifth.
When the smoke cleared, Randall was shell-shocked.
“I don’t even believe it just happened,” said Randall in response to the stadium interviewer’s first question, sounding a little stunned.
In an interview with FasterSkier after the race, Randall explained that her good position was the key to winning.
“The hill was my strong point,” she said. “I didn’t want to lead, and when I made that strong move on the uphill, it was the perfect set-up for me.”
As for the big gap in the final, Randall said she never even thought about where the other women were.
“In my mind they are always there,” she said. “You never take anything for granted in sprint racing.”
While Randall was excited about the win, she wasn’t shy about spreading around the credit — her fast skis, the great atmosphere in Davos, the team’s accommodation at Hotel Kulm, and the crowd all helped her to victory.
“The training life leading up to the race is so nice [in Davos]” she said.
“I had amazing skis, and I really want to share this with the team — they do such a good job of taking care of absolutely everything and letting me just race.”
As for Bjoergen, Randall said that it was “a bit of a bummer” the Norwegian wasn’t in the final.
“She’s the gold standard we all compare ourselves with,” said Randall. “It would have been nice to test myself against her, but all five women were plenty challenging.”
Randall now has a week to digest the fact that she leads the Sprint Cup standings by 46 points, and is ranked third in the World Cup Overall standings before another weekend of World Cup action in Rogla, Slovenia.
But tonight, she has some celebrating to do. She’s eating dinner with Anna Haag and Emil Joensson (SWE), whom she and Liz Stephen trained with last summer, and then spending some time enjoying the win with the whole U.S. Ski Team.