Saturday was Holly Brooks' time to turn heads.
A day after teammate Kikkan Randall posted her second career-best of the young World Cup season, Brooks got into the act by skiing to her career-best World Cup finish, claiming 17th place in a 5-kilometer freestyle race in Kuusamo, Finland, to give the U.S. -- and Anchorage -- two women in the top 20.
Randall placed 12th, matching her second-best career finish in a non-sprint race and moving into fifth place in the overall World Cup standings.
"Holly was for sure the story of the day," said U.S. Ski Team coach Chris Grover.
The performance was redemption for Brooks, who placed 70th Friday in the qualifying round of a classic sprint race.
"I was certainly disappointed after yesterday's debacle and decided that today, I had nothing to lose," she said in an email. "It's hard, fast, and icy here so I knew that it would be important to go out hard and maintain a consistent pace. I focused on skiing transitions and did lots of skating with no poles."
Brooks drew an early start position because of her poor finish Friday and was the 21st skier on the course in a field of 91. She received two split-times from Grover during her race and both had her in second place, "which helped fuel the fire," she said.
Brooks and Randall both train with the Alaska Pacific University nordic program, which Brooks joined as a coach a couple of years ago. For the last three seasons she has coached less and raced more, earning a spot on the 2010 Olympic team as well as a berth in this season's early World Cup team races.
It's the third time Brooks has scored World Cup points by placing in the top 30, with her previous best coming two seasons ago when she placed 24th in a 10-K freestyle in Canmore, Alberta
"Today's result gives me the confidence that will help carry me through Christmas and the rest of my time here in Europe," she said.
Setting the pace was Norway's Marit Bjoergen, who remained undefeated in three individual races this season by putting down a winning time of 11 minutes, 45.3 seconds. Randall clocked 12:21 and was four seconds out of the top 10 and Brooks finished in 12:26.5. Liz Stephen of Vermont scored World Cup points with a 28th-place finish (12:40) and Sadie Bjornsen of APU was 37th (12:47.8).
"We've got a really good vibe going on the women's team right now that stems back from Oslo," Randall said in an email, referring to last season's World Championships. "I think we can all see what is possible now. We work together in the offseason and push each other, and now we are seeing the positive results of that in our racing.
"We've gone from having one female athlete here in Kuusamo five years ago not even close to the points to now having three in the top 30 and almost four.
"It also feel like the fans on the sidelines are adopting us a little bit."
Thanks to their finishes Saturday, Randall and Brooks are in good position for today's pursuit race. Randall, one of the world's best freestyle sprinters, will be shooting for a top-10 finish, which is what she hoped for Saturday after last weekend's eighth-place showing in a 10-K freestyle, her best World Cup result in a non-sprint race. She followed that up by placing fourth in Friday's classic sprint, her highest finish in a classic-technique sprint.
"My expectations have certainly changed based on the results from the past two weekends," she said. "Now that I know I can race in the top 10, that is where I will be aiming for each race. I definitely went into the 5-K today wanting to lay down a top-10 worthy effort so I was a little disappointed to be just outside. Yet, I know I laid down the best effort I had out there today and that is always my No. 1 goal. My legs were a bit heavy and it was a really hard race."
Randall and Brooks are coming off an intensive offseason of training that included a couple of trips to APU's Eagle Glacier facility. In July, they staged one of the most riveting duels in Seward's Mount Marathon race, with Randall placing first and Brooks second. In today's pursuit, Randall will have a slim 5.5-second head start on Brooks.
"I'm pretty psyched," Randall said. "I love head-to-head racing and I've got some great skiers to ski against."
Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn,com or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News