Randall gives US rare chance at cross-country gold
Every time Kikkan Randall reaches a career milestone, she's also breaking new ground for American cross-country skiing.
In a sport with little in the way of tradition in the U.S., no American woman had ever even been on the podium in a World Cup event before Randall earned a third-place finish in January 2007. Seven years later, she has 10 career victories, is the defending World Cup sprint champion, and a world champion in the team sprint with Jessica Diggins - and every achievement has been a first for an American woman.
Now there's just the big one left: an Olympic medal.
And in Sochi, at her fourth Winter Games, Randall has a real chance to finally get one: she is entering the individual freestyle sprint as one of the big gold-medal favorites, another status previously unheard of for an American.
''The Olympics are really kind of the gold standard in the sport,'' Randall said in a phone interview. ''It's been wonderful to achieve the success I have had in the sport, but success at the Olympics is really the final one to go for. I feel my career has been building up to this point. I know it's just one race on one day, but I would love to add an Olympic medal to that collection.''
In the wake of Randall's successes, a number of other American skiers have also emerged on the World Cup. On the men's side, Simi Hamilton won a sprint stage on the Tour de Ski this season, while veteran Andrew Newell is also an outside contender in the men's sprint.
But Randall is the team's only real star.
''We have a unique opportunity to make history in Sochi,'' U.S. cross-country head coach Chris Grover said when the American team was announced.
Only one American has ever won an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing, with Bill Koch taking silver in the men's 30-kilometer race at the 1976 Innsbruck Games. On the women's side, Randall is the only one to even make the top 10, with an eighth-place finish in the classical-style sprint in Vancouver four years ago as her best result.
This time, though, the individual sprint is a freestyle event - by far Randall's best discipline. At the age of 31, she is also a much stronger skier than four years ago. Nine of her 10 individual World Cup victories have come since 2011, and all of them in freestyle sprints - the event she specializes in. She won the last two World Cup events before Sochi, in Poland and the Czech Republic, although those victories came against slightly weakened fields as some top skiers focused on training for Sochi.
Still, those were confidence-boosting wins that showed she is peaking at the right time.
The problem for Randall is that the sprint race doesn't come down to just form. Luck sometimes plays its part as well.
In the individual sprint, skiers have to go through a qualifying run, then a quarterfinal and semifinal heat before the top six reach the final. With six skiers fighting it out in each heat on a narrow course, poles and skis often get tangled up and there are a lot of spills and crashes. It is one of the most spectator-friendly events of all the cross-country disciplines - full of tactics and close finishes - but also the one where most accidents occur.
Randall knows that all too well.
In 2011, the American was entering the world championships as the gold-medal favorite in the freestyle sprint - again having won the last two World Cup events before the championships. But in the quarterfinals, another competitor ran over one of her skis, causing Randall to fall, and she finished last in her heat - ending her chances of an individual world title.
''It was definitely pretty tough after that, because everything had been focused on the preparations and I knew I was in the best shape of my life and I could contend for a medal,'' the Anchorage, Alaska, native said. ''That really taught me a lot that will help me going into the Olympics. I know that my career and my self-worth doesn't depend on whether I get that medal. . There's always a chance that something could happen, and I just have to be focused on doing my best. That's what counts at the end of the day.''
And she insists that entering the games as one of the favorites doesn't add any extra pressure - only more motivation.
''I really enjoyed my previous three Olympics . but I really wanted to be there and contend for a medal,'' Randall said. ''And to finally be at that point, I'm just excited about the opportunity that lies ahead.''