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Randall, Brooks help put U.S. on relay podium

Beth Bragg
courtesy of USSA

Hashtags tell the tale of Sunday’s unprecedented performance by Kikkan Randall, Holly Brooks and the rest of the U.S. Ski team women’s relay team in Gaellivare, Sweden.

#historic, tweeted Brooks.

#teamusa on fire, tweeted Randall.

#bestever, Brooks again.

A day after they shocked the nordic ski world by finishing third and fifth in a World Cup 10-kilometer race, Anchorage skiers Randall and Brooks teamed up with Liz Stephen and Jessie Diggins to capture third place in a World Cup relay race in Gaellivare.

It was, as noted by Brooks via Twitter hashmarks, the first podium finish in history for the American women, whose previous best was a fifth-place finish last season.

It was also, as pointed out by Randall on Twitter, a continuation of excellence by the U.S. women, who truly are on fire.

The Americans have been hot since last season, when Randall won the World Cup sprint overall championship and Brooks and Diggins earned spots on the U.S. squad and almost immediately started scoring points.

In a sport where top-30 finishes by Americans were hailed as breakthroughs only a decade ago, today they are routine.

Even so, Sunday’s finish was #epic.

“It was one of the strongest waves of emotions I’ve felt in awhile,” Randall said in a statement released by the U.S. Ski Team. “We’ve known this was possible for a long time. We just knew it was going to take each of us putting together the right performance on the right day and we could be in the fight for the podium.”

The U.S. finished behind two traditional nordic powerhouses, Norway and Sweden. Diggins outsprinted the anchor of Norway’s second team — a B team that is far superior to most nation’s A team — to secure a podium spot for the Americans, who finished ahead of Finland and Russia, among others.

“Did this really happen? Still pinching myself!” Brooks tweeted after the race.

A relay medal was one of the team’s goals this season, Brooks said.

“Our women’s team sat down last spring and drew up some goals, one of which was a relay podium sometime this season,” she said in the ski team’s press release. “Little did we know that we would accomplish it on our first try.”

Brooks and Randall, teammates in the Alaska Pacific University nordic program, raced classic-technique legs. Brooks, 30, skied the scramble leg and put the U.S. in eighth place, 11.2 seconds behind first-place Norway.

She tagged off to Randall, 29, who proceeded to clock the fastest time of the second leg, lifting her team into second place, 8.2 seconds out of first place and ahead of Sweden.

Stephen, 25, of East Montpelier, Vt., skied a solid freestyle leg to expand the team’s lead over Sweden and put it 4.2 seconds behind Norway.

That put the team’s fate in the hands of Diggins of Afton, Minn., the youngster of the team at 21. Diggins went out in a position both enviable and intimidating — behind Norway’s Marit Bjoergen, the world’s most dominant skier and the winner of multiple Olympic championships, and ahead of Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla. Kalla is also an Olympic champion — and she was buoyed by the cheers of 10,000 spectators, most of them Swedish.

Kalla passed Diggins, who soon found herself in a battle with the anchor from the Norway II team. She clinched third place in a sprint finish.

Bjoergen led Norway to a 19.6-second victory over Sweden, which beat the United States by 8.8 seconds. The Americans edged Norway’s second team by half a second to claim the bronze medal.

“Some people at the race today were skeptical we could put together the four world-class relay legs that it takes to reach the podium,” said U.S. coach Chris Grover. “But the women handled the pressure and did it.”

The result was historically huge — the only other podium finishes for American relay teams came from the men 30 years ago, back when Bill Koch was part of the team.

Koch remains the only American to win an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing, but Randall and her teammates are doing something every bit as special with their World Cup results.

Randall, a bona fide star in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe where the sport is wildly popular, led an incredible finish in Saturday’s 10-kilometer freestyle that foretold Sunday’s bronze-medal performance. She placed third for the first podium finish of her career in a non-sprint race. Brooks placed fifth, by far her best World Cup finish. Stephen was right in the mix for a top finish until she crashed and broke a pole, slipping to 21st place in the process.

“Today blows yesterday out of the water,” Randall tweeted.

And things could get even better. The World Cup circuit this week heads to Kuusamo, Finland, for the season-opening sprint races — Randall’s best event, and the one in which she is the reigning world champion.

 

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

 

 


By BETH BRAGG
Anchorage