One race into the new World Cup cross country ski season, the world's top five women are three Olympic gold medalists and two Alaskans.
Kikkan Randall and Holly Brooks enjoyed career-best performances in a 10-kilometer freestyle race in Gaelivare, Sweden, with Randall making the awards podium in third place and Brooks three seconds back in fifth place.
It was a milestone of a day for both Anchorage women. Randall, 29, is the reigning World Cup sprint champion but had never before made the podium for a distance race, and Brooks, 30, had never finished higher than 13th in a World Cup individual race.
"Wow!" was the reaction from Randall, who contended with a stress fracture during the offseason that significantly altered her training.
"This is something I've wanted to do sometime in my career. I definitely did not expect to be here this early."
"I'm pumped -- and that's probably an understatement," was the response from Brooks, who is beginning her second season on the World Cup circuit. "It's still sinking in."
Norway's Marit Bjoergen won the race in 22 minutes, 31.8 seconds and teammate Therese Johaug was second in 22:44.4.
Randall was next in 22:57.7, followed one second later by Sweden's Charlotte Kalla (22:58.7) and Brooks (23:00.3). Bjoergen, Johaug and Kalla are all Olympic gold medalists.
Brooks, an Olympian in 2010, started much earlier than the others, going out sixth in the interval start. Randall started 56th and the other three top finishers, who are among the world's top-ranked distance skiers and therefore were awarded more favorable start positions, started in the 70s.
Brooks was already racing the second of two laps before Randall and the others were even on course. For nearly a half hour after she finished, she sat in the leader's chair at the finish line, a spot reserved for the skier with the fastest time. Brooks didn't have to relinquish her seat until Randall finished with a faster time.
"It was my goal to come across the line in first because I wanted to sit in the reindeer-skin leader's chair," Brooks said in an email.
"It's a place I've never been before and it was really, really fun to watch the race from the finish line.
"I sat there for quite some time until I had to give the chair up."
Brooks last season recorded two top-20 World Cup finishes, placing 13th in the 15-K freestyle and 19th in a 10-K classic. She enjoyed a pair of top-10 finishes as a member of the U.S. relay team, helping the Americans to fifth place in one relay and ninth in another.
Randall has made numerous trips to the victory podium after sprint races, but the closest she'd come to a podium finish in a distance race with sixth place in a 15-K last season in Finland. She also owns three eighth-place finishes in distance races.
Randall and Brooks are likely to race again Sunday in the relay, where the Americans are suddenly medal contenders. A third American, Liz
Stephens, was challenging for a top-five finish in Saturday's race before she broke a pole and slipped to 21st place.
Randall said she approached the race as a workout after spending part of the summer in a walking boot because of a stress fracture.
According to the U.S. Ski Team, she didn't believe staff members on course who told her she was in position to make the podium with only two kilometers to go.
"Today was a very pleasant surprise," she said. "Today I just wanted to go out and really focus on getting a really hard workout. Having been recovering from a stress fracture since August and having done a very different training than I'm used to, I was very anxious coming into this weekend not knowing how I was going to feel."
U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb, who said Randall looked great in Friday's training, believes this could be the start of a new level of excellence for Randall, who last season showed she isn't just a sprint specialist by emerging as a threat in distance races.
"We saw yesterday (in training) that Kikkan was coming into World Cup form again, only this time perhaps at a new level," he said in a statement released by the team. "Today's result is a testament to her patience in her recovery from injury, and a great reminder to anyone that a strong dose of recovery tends to do the body good."