Her goggles got knocked off her face early and a slight hesitation cost her victory late, but an adventurous day of sprint racing ended Saturday with Anchorage's Kikkan Randall tightening her grip on the World Cup women's sprint lead.
Randall placed second in a freestyle sprint race in Milan, Italy, to hold onto the red jersey worn by World Cup leaders.
It was her fifth podium finish of the season and the seventh time in seven sprint races that she's finished in the top 10 -- and that's not counting the silver medal she and Alaska Pacific University teammate Sadie Bjornsen won in the season's only team sprint race earlier this winter.
Randall, who is attempting to become the first American to win a World Cup season title since Bill Koch won the overall crown in 1982, has amassed 434 sprint points for a 124-point lead over Russia's Natalia Matveeva.
She ranks fourth in the overall standings with 883 points, 101 points out of third place. She has raced in all 23 of this season's World Cup races and has placed in the top 10 in all but six.
"I've been in good shape," she wrote in an email. "We've been training to compete and I hope I can keep the red jersey till the end of the season. I'm feeling strong and I hope I can make it."
Randall's success and personality have gained her a considerable following in Europe, where nordic skiing is a popular spectator sport and American success is rare.
"When we got back to our wax room there were at least 20 people hoping to get a photo with Kikkan," U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb said in a press release. "She's a real crowd favorite just about anywhere we go."
Randall, 29, was the leader coming into the stadium, less than a kilometer from the famed Duomo di Milano cathedral. She hesitated while choosing a lane in the straightaway to the finish line and was passed by Sweden's Ida Ingemasdotter.
"That moment cost me a little bit of momentum and that's where Ida made up the ground on me," Randall wrote. "I fought to get back on my skis, but couldn't close that half a stride before the line. My energy was still good, just a little technical error that cost me the win."
Energy supplies were an issue Saturday because most skiers were coming off the taxing Tour de Ski race series -- nine races over 11 days -- that ended last Sunday.
"I've definitely been feeling pretty wonky all week, kind of like being on an energy roller coaster," Randall wrote. "Slept a lot and just did some light training."
After qualifying 11th Saturday morning, Randall won both her quarterfinal and semifinals heats. The course was flat and narrow, making a fast start almost imperative, and on the first turn of the finals, another skier's pole knocked off the goggles off Randall's face. She was not deterred.
"It was satisfying to be strong on a flat course," wrote Randall, who flourishes on uphills.
Randall was joined in the heats by Minnesota teenager Jessie Diggins, who qualified 18th. Bjornsen just missed advancing, qualifying 31st, one second out of the top 30. Anchorage's Holly Brooks, who raced the Tour de Ski with a broken wrist, did not compete.
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News