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Randall clinches World Cup sprint title in unusual fashion

Beth Bragg
Winner Kikkan Randall from United States, center, celebrates on the podium next to second placed Natalia Matveeva from Russia, left, and third placed Maiken Caspersen Falla from Norway, right, after winning the women's FIS cross country World Cup sprint in the free technique in Davos, Switzerland, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011. Arno Balzarini / AP Photo

Even on one ski, Kikkan Randall is the best in the world.

Randall, the three-time Olympian from Anchorage, clinched the World Cup cross-country sprint world championship Wednesday in Drammen, Norway, despite skiing on a single ski while carrying the other for part of the race.

Randall, who has worn the red bib as the World Cup sprint leader since winning the season's first sprint back in early December, finished 11th in the classic sprint at Drammen to capture the crown with one sprint race remaining.

She is the nation's first World Cup champion in cross-country skiing since Bill Koch, the man who revolutionized nordic skiing by ushering in the skating technique, won the 1982 overall title.

Ironically, Randall's big day came on her worst day of sprinting all season. The 11th-place showing marked the first time she has finished out of the top 10 in nine sprint races this season.

And yet she secured the crystal globe awarded to World Cup champions in classic Kikkan Randall fashion.

She entered the race needing to finish 15th or higher to secure the title. By advancing to the semifinals, she was assured of no worse than 12th place -- provided she finished the heat.

When she broke a binding, lost a ski and fell down early in the 1.2-kilometer race, finishing wasn't a guarantee -- except this is Randall we're talking about.

She picked up the ski and carried it for 600 meters as she continued racing on a single ski. With 200 meters to go, U.S. Ski Team coach Chris Grover gave her a replacement, allowing Randall to cross the finish line and claim her crown on two skis.

"A bittersweet day," she wrote in an email, "but emphasis on the SWEET!!!!"

Watching the race online in Anchorage, Erik Flora, Randall's coach, wasn't surprised to see Randall forge on with a single ski.

"She's always fought really hard. She never gives up. Like that race in Poland, she (falls down and) gets back up and she's right in it," said Flora, the head coach of the Alaska Pacific University nordic program, referring to one of Randall's four podium finishes this season.

Here's the play-by-play of Randall's adventurous semifinal:

"After a decent start, the first problem came when I ended up going for the same track as Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen on the uphill and she literally pushed me out of it," Randall wrote. "So I had some catching up to do and I really hammered to the high point.

"I was trying to be in a real low tuck and make some ground up when I think my wax may have caught and I had to jump sideways to catch my balance. That's when my binding ripped off my ski and I went down.

"I knew I needed to finish the heat, so I picked up my ski and broken binding and scootered most of the way around until I got a new ski 200 meters from the finish."

Randall finished far behind the other five skiers in the heat and was 63.7 seconds behind Marit Bjoergen of Norway, who won the heat in 3:34.3 and went on to win the final.

No worries. Randall scored enough points to bring her season total to 628. With just one sprint race remaining, second-place Maiken Casperson Falla of Norway, with 493 sprint points, has no mathematical possibility of catching Randall.

Randall, 29, said the sprint title has been her goal all season -- the first she has spent entirely in Europe. A veteran of the U.S. Ski Team for a decade, Randall has never raced a full World Cup season until now.

"It's been a long season, a lot of racing and it's been an exciting competition to the end," she said. "But I am happy to finally secure (the championship) now.

"We have had an incredible team this year -- coaches, staff and athletes during the entire season -- and it's definitely a team effort to win the globe."

Randall built a large lead in the sprint standings by virtue of her strength as a skater. The first two sprints of the season were freestyle races, and she won both.

By the time the first classic-technique sprint rolled around, in January, she had a firm grasp on the red bib worn by the sprint leader. She tightened her grip by turning in the best classic-technique results of her career, finishing ninth in the first and fifth in the second.

Wednesday's was the third classic sprint of the season. The season finale in Stockholm, Sweden, is also a classic race.

A year ago, Randall may not have been able to post those kind of classic results, Flora said.

"Oh boy, her results this year from last year are much better. It's been a really, really good step up," he said. "Kikkan's one of those unique athletes; each year she's getting better and better. She's become more well-rounded."

Randall for a time was at risk of being pigeon-holed as a freestyle sprinter. Two years ago in a classic sprint race on the same Drammen course used Wednesday, she didn't even advance out of the qualifying round, placing in the mid-30s in preliminaries.

This season, her freestyle distance racing picked up. And her classic sprinting. And her classic distance racing. Much of the improvement comes from the 30 days or so she and other APU skiers spent training on Eagle Glacier last summer.

"She's almost a new skier from a year ago," Flora said.

"To say even a year ago that she would be the World Cup sprint winner today, that would have stretched my imagination. I knew she had it in her to accomplish great things, but this is incredible."

Randall said she celebrated her historic championship with a quick champagne toast with the U.S. team in the wax room. Later, she had a celebratory dinner with her dad, Ronn, who was there for the race.

Randall will receive her crystal globe -- made by Joska Kristall of Germany from hand-blown lead crystal -- after the final sprint race Wednesday in Stockholm.

"With a few big races coming up really quick," she wrote, "we'll have to save the real celebrating until the finals are finished."

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Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.


By BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News