The all-Anchorage duo of Kikkan Randall and Sadie Bjornsen turned in a promising finish at a World Cup race in Italy on Sunday, while Anchorage slopestyle snowboarder Ryan Stassel continued his Winter Olympics quest with a top-10 finish at a qualifying event in Colorado.
Randall, a three-time Olympian who is expected to lead a strong women's cross country team into Sochi, Russia, teamed up with Bjornsen, who is seeking to make her first Olympic team, to place fifth in the team sprint race in Asiago.
The result matched the best finish by an American team in a classic-technique team sprint, equalling the fifth-place finish fashioned a year ago in Sochi by Bjornsen and Vermont's Ida Sargent.
But Chris Grover, the West High graduate who is the head coach of the U.S. Ski Team's cross country team, said Sunday's fifth-place finish was the bigger result of the two. A classic team sprint is on the schedule for Sochi, and Randall and Bjornsen showed that the Americans could challenge for a medal.
"We had a deeper field today in Asiago and we had two teams from Norway ahead of us," Grover said. "This bodes well looking forward to the Games, where each nation will only be able to enter one team. And it suggests that on a good day in Sochi, we can be one of the teams in the hunt for a medal."
Like Norway, the United States had two strong teams. Sargent and Sophie Caldwell, also of Vermont, placed eighth.
Norway and the U.S. were the only countries with two teams in the top eight; Russia landed two in the top 10.
"Two team sprints in the running for a medal!" Bjornsen said in U.S. Ski Team press release. "I came away from today so happy and excited for our team. It is a great way to kick off the holidays with so much excitement and belief in this team. We are headed in a great direction."
Finland's team of Aino-Kalsa Saarinen and Anne Kyllonen cruised to victory in 19 minutes, 15.77 seconds, nearly 25 seconds ahead of Norway. Germany nipped Norway's second team for the bronze medal in 19:25.74. Randall and Bjornsen, who train together at Alaska Pacific University, were several seconds back in 19:34.20. Sargent and Caldwell clocked 19:36.28.
"It was an OK race for us today," Randall said in an email. "Both Sadie and I felt like we were missing our full sprint gear so to still be top five was a decent day.
"It was really good to go through a whole team sprint race with strong competition. We were close to where we want to be and this gives us good motivation and some things to work on before Sochi."
At Colorado's Copper Mountain, 21-year-old Stassel continued his bid to make the U.S. team by placing seventh in men's slopestyle snowboarding in the second of five Olympic qualifying events for American riders.
The United States can send up to three men to Sochi in slopestyle snowboarding, which is making its Olympic debut. The battle for those spots is intense.
So far only one athlete -- Olympic superstar Shaun White -- has met the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team's No. 1 objective selection criteria, which is a top-four finish at one of the five qualifying events. White met that standard Sunday by placing third.
Stassel was the third among Americans. Chas Guldemond was the second, in fifth place, and another American, Brandon Davis, was right behind Stassel in eighth place.
Also very much in the picture is Sage Kotsenberg, who was the top qualifier at Copper Mountain but placed 14th in Sunday's finals.
Winning Sunday's finals was Staale Sandbech of Norway with a score of 97.0.
White, the two-time Olympic halfpipe champion who is adding slopestyle to his repertoire this season, claimed third place with a score of 90.75 on his first run. White fell early in his second run but did not appear to injure himself.
Stassel scored 84.25 on his second run to edge Davis by one point.
The competition for Olympic spots continues Jan. 8-11, when the Grand Prix Tour moves to Breckenridge, Colo.
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.