Kikkan Randall, who arrived in Europe last month with modest expectations for the start of the World Cup cross country season, will return to North America this week with three medals after five races.
Randall, whose off-season training was limited by a foot injury, on Sunday wrapped up the three-race Ruka Triple in Kuusamo, Finland, by placing fifth in a 10-kilometer classic pursuit race. That gave her fifth place overall in the Ruka mini-tour, where the Anchorage woman bagged second place in the 5-K skate race and 10th place in the sprint.
"If you had told me two weeks ago that I would be walking away from this weekend with a podium and fifth-place overall, I might not have believed you," Randall said in an email. "Coming back from the foot injury, I anticipated it was going to take several races to sharpen into race form. So I guess you could say I've ended up racing a little faster than expected."
After spending most of the fall and summer wearing a walking boot to protect a stress fracture, Randall heads into two weeks of World Cup racing in Canada as the No. 5 skier in the World Cup overall rankings. She is ranked third in the distance standings, a significant accomplishment for a skier who won last season's World Cup sprint title and was viewed by some as a sprint specialist.
Also significant: The U.S. Ski Team boasts three women in the top 15 of the World Cup standings -- more than any country but Norway, which has six. One of them is Anchorage's Holly Brooks, who is ranked 14th. Liz Stephen of East Montpelier, Vt., is 15th.
Long an afterthought in the world of nordic skiing, the Americans are on an unprecedented roll. Four women are in the top 25 and five are in the top 30 heading into races in Quebec and Alberta, where they could continue to shine, especially with many of Europe's top skiers choosing to skip the trip, according to Randall.
In Sunday's 10-K classic pursuit, where falling snow made for tough conditions, Randall placed fifth in 33 minutes, 44.2 seconds. Stephen followed in 17th (34:25), Ida Sargent of Orleans, Vt., in 18th
(34:29), Brooks in 22nd (34:37.5) and Jessie Diggins of Afton, Minn., in 24th (34:50.6).
Norway's Marit Bjoergen claimed her fifth gold medal in as many races this season with another dominating performance. She won in 31:19.4, more than 80 seconds ahead of second-place Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland.
Skiers were seeded based on their combined results of the first two races in Kuusamo. Of the five Americans, only Stephen improved her position in the pursuit -- she started 24th and moved to 17th by skiing the day's 11th-fastest time.
Brooks maintained her position, starting 22nd and finishing 22nd. Randall went out second but dropped to fifth place with the day's 28th-fastest time. "I didn't have enough snap and tempo," she said.
While she is more than satisfied with her results so far, Randall returns to North America knowing that she needs to work on her classic skiing. Her best results have come in skate races and she has yet to feel sharp in a classic race.
"While my skating has been really strong, my classic striding at race pace is not feeling ready quite yet," she said. "It's the opposite of how I expected to feel as I didn't skate for 2.5 months and was focusing on double-pole and upper-body (workouts)."
By BETH BRAGG