An American flourishing in a sport that would make her a celebrity in Europe or Russia, Anchorage's Kikkan Randall registered a career-best performance in a classic sprint race Friday to continue the best start of her World Cup cross-country skiing career.
Randall, 28, finished fourth in a 1.2-kilometer race in Kuusamo, Finland, conquering a course that had denied her three times previously in preliminaries, outdueling the reigning World Cup overall champion to reach the semifinals and advancing to the finals for the first time in a classic-technique sprint.
A week after posting a career-best in a non-sprint race, Randall blazed at the end of the 1.2-kilometer final to put herself in contention for a medal after trailing early. She finished less than a second behind the bronze-medal winner.
"A classic sprint podium is now within her reach. She has become a legitimate threat in every discipline on the World Cup," U.S. Ski Team coach Chris Grover said in a press release.
Randall is coming off one of the best seasons in history by an American skier. She reached the podium five times last season en route to the world's No. 3 sprint ranking, but all of those performances -- including three victories -- came in freestyle races.
She has used the first two weekends of this season to demonstrate something she has long contended -- she is more than a freestyle sprint specialist. In Norway last weekend, Randall registered a career-best in a distance race by placing eighth in a 10-kilometer freestyle and the next day skied the second-fastest time in the second leg of a 4x5-K relay. Then she traveled to the Arctic Circle and exorcised the demons of Kuusamo.
In three previous classic sprints there, Randall failed to advance from the preliminary round. This time, starting first in the time-trail prelims, she put down the 15th fastest time to advance to the quarterfinal heats.
"I was really psyched to get that monkey off my back," Randall said in an email. "I started (first) so there was no one to follow or watch how they skied the line. I just had to hammer on my own."
Victory went to Norway's Marit Bjoergen, a three-time gold medalist at the Vancouver Olympics who won for the 49th time in World Cup action. Charlotte Kalla of Sweden placed second and Vibeka Skofterud of Norway was third, with Randall right behind.
"I am super satisfied with my best ever classic sprint result. But also a little bummed to have just missed out on a podium," Randall wrote.
"In the final I had a poor start and had a lot of ground to make up on the climb. I was still coming on strong in the final stretch but made a couple bobbles and lost my momentum trying to catch third place."
In all three heats, Randall attacked the course's big uphill to break out of the middle of the pack. In the quarterfinal, she had to catch and then outduel Poland's Justyna Kowalczyk, last year's overall World Cup champion, to gain a semifinal spot.
"I pushed super hard off the final turn and had a serious drag race with Justyna. I was just able to hold her off," she said.
Friday's race was the first of three in Kuusamo. The next two are distance races, and Randall is motivated for those after last week's showing in Norway.
"I want to race like I did last weekend and push myself to go for more top 10s," she said. "At this point, all I want to do is put another bib on and go for it."
Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn,com or 257-4335.