For Kikkan Randall and the rest of Team USA, history at the 2014 Sochi Games will have to wait—if it's to be made at all.
In a crushing disappointment, Randall, 31, shockingly failed to make it out of the quarterfinals of the individual sprint, her strongest event, on Sunday at the Sochi Olympics.
Norwegians Maiken Caspersen Falla and Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg won gold and silver. Slovenia’s Vesna Fabjan took bronze.
With the top two finishers automatically advancing to the semifinals, Randall seemed assured to advance when she led coming into the stadium. First one, two, then three skiers passed her, including rival Marit Bjoergen, on the finish straightaway soon after entering the stadium. Randall finished fourth.
“I was feeling really good and was ready to come off that final turn and have a good finish stretch,” she told reporters later, saying her legs stiffened. “But that final gear just wasn’t quite there and unfortunately I fell apart a little bit right before the finish and didn’t get a good lunge in.”
Her time barely missed “lucky loser” status allotted to fill in the remaining slots in the next round.
“Seven one hundredths of a second is an incredibly close margin,” Randall said, her voice tight with emotion. “I’m sure I will be reliving those moments hundreds of times in my head. But I was happy to be on my feet today, happy to be in the fight. I gave everything I had.”
It was an abrupt end to what was considered the best medal chance for Randall, skiing in her speciality and her fourth Games, to become the first American woman to win an Olympic cross-country medal. Until Randall came along, the U.S. had rarely seen success in the sport, generally dominated by Europeans and Scandinavian nations.
With Tuesday’s result, a 1976 silver medal in the 30 kilometer won by Vermont’s Bill Koch remains the lone Olympic medal won by an American in cross-country skiing.
Randall was supposed to change that, and Tuesday figured to be the time to do it. Making matters worse was the waste of a golden opportunity—race favorite Marit Bjoergen of Norway, Randall’s chief rival and skiathlon gold medalist earlier in the Games, was out of the competition after falling in the semifinals earlier in the day.
Instead of the veteran Randall, it was surprising U.S. team rookie Sophie Caldwell, 23, another Vermonter, who reached the Olympic finals. Caldwell finished sixth, last in the final, after falling midway through the 1.3-kilometer loop that takes less than three minutes to complete. Skiers race the loop several times in a day, from preliminaries to the knockout rounds, then the final.
"I'm not sure exactly what happened," Caldwell said to reporters. "We were coming around that corner on top and someone tried to come super on the inside right as I was stepping over to take the corner and we got kind of tangled."
Caldwell's finish was the best by a U.S. female cross-country skier in Olympic history.
Caldwell, skiing in pink-rimmed sunglasses—possibly in a nod to Randall, who dyes a pink swath in her hair—is in her first year on the U.S. national team. In the final, she appeared to lose her balance at the top of a descent, putting her well behind the leaders in an event where the slightest miscue can spell disaster.
Caldwell had been skiing strongly in fourth position for the first part of the lap. In the semifinal, she had shown impressive closing speed in the stadium, rallying to tie for first in the heat.
There is hope for the future at these Olympics, and beyond. On Saturday, Jessie Diggins and Liz Stephen were eighth and 12th, respectively, in the 15-km pursuit, the first time the U.S. placed two skiers in the top 15 of an Olympic race. Diggins and Ida Sargent also started Tuesday's sprint but did not make it out of the quarterfinals.
But hope remains for Randall and the American team. As Erik Brady of USA Today pointed out, they still stand a chance in the 4X5-km relay on Saturday and the team sprint classic on Feb. 19. Brady called the races Randall's "life preserver."
“We’ve got two great team events coming up,” Randall said. “That’s making today a little bit easier for sure.”
If four-time Olympian Randall is not destined to make history as America’s first female Olympic cross-country medalist, Caldwell someday might be. Both her grandfather and uncle were Olympians, and Caldwell learned to ski at the same time she learned to walk.
Caldwell, who graduated from Dartmouth College just a year ago, is a promising talent who skied in her first World Cup events last year, with her top result 14th. She also qualified for the sprint final in the World Championships.
But on Tuesday, all eyes were on Randall, an upbeat Alaskan whose mission is to show Americans that cross-country skiing is hip—a tough sell to a culture more enamored with Alpine downhill speed than the grind of Nordic events. She was ninth in the 2006 Olympics, 44th in 2002 and eighth in Vancouver in 2010, in the sprint classic race.
The Olympics alternate skate and classic (diagonal stride) techniques, a fact Randall painfully noted in her missed opportunity.
“I’ve been thinking about this race for a long time,” Randall said.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet. It’s tough when you get one shot at these every eight years. Sprints especially are a little tough with strategy and everything that can happen.”
Nicknamed “Kikkanimal” for her legendary workouts and cardiovascular strength, Randall is the most accomplished cross-country skier in U.S. history, male or female. She has twice won the World Cup overall sprint title and won two world championship medals. She is a 19-time World Cup medalist.
But the one accomplishment that would garner the attention of the American public—an Olympic medal—remains elusive.
Meri-Jo Borzilleri covered four Olympic Games for the Colorado Springs Gazette and the Seattle Times.