Randall eighth in 15-K; moves closer to Tour de Ski leader

Beth Bragg

Kikkan Randall dropped three spots in the Tour de Ski standings Thursday in Toblach, Italy, yet she still gained ground on race winner and series leader Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland.

Randall started the 15-kilometer freestyle pursuit in fifth place but finished in eighth place. Even so, she narrowed the gap between herself and Kowalczyk, who won the race but nonetheless saw her overall lead shrink.

With four of seven races completed in the arduous Ski de Tour, Kowalczyk leads with a total time of 1 hour, 12 minutes, 8.1 seconds. Randall, who has won two of the first four races, is 59.3 seconds behind. Randall entered Thursday's pursuit trailing Kowalczyk by 78 seconds.

Kowalczyk won the pursuit and a three-woman sprint determined second place, with Charlotte Kalla of Sweden taking the silver with a powerful performance that carried her from seventh place to second. Randall said she had hoped to keep pace with Kalla, but was unable to.

"My legs were a little stiff out there, but I was able to get in a good pack and it was fun to actually be able to take some time back on Kowalczyk," Randall said in an email.

"The course was bomb proof and super fast. I had a little fall early in the race when I tripped myself but thankfully it wasn't at a really crucial point."

Two other Americans moved up in standings with strong pursuits. Liz Stephen of E. Montpelier, Vt., went from 25th to 19th and Jessie Diggins of Afton, Minn., moved from 39th to 27th.

Anchorage's Holly Brooks struggled, dropping from 23rd to 34th.

The Tour de Ski features seven races over nine days in three countries. The final three races are in Italy -- skiers remain in Toblach for a 3-kilometer classic race Friday and then travel to Val di Fiemme for a 10-K classic Saturday and a 9-K climb up an alpine ski hill Sunday.

"I'm looking forward to another short and fast race," Randall said. "This is when the Tour really starts to get interesting and it's great to see how (our) team (is) responding to the challenge."

With three women in the top 30 and Brooks capable of making that number four, this is by far the best showing the U.S. Ski Team has had in the seven-year history of the Tour de Ski, which has quickly become a highlight on the international race schedule.

The showing is further evidence that, with Randall leading the way, the Americans are gaining ground in a sport that has long been the domain of European and Russian skiers.

"A couple of years ago, this wasn't even a possibility," Randall said after her victory in Tuesday's sprint race in Val Mustair, Switzerland. "Our team has come a long way and it's really fun to see our small but spirited team taking on all the bigger nations and their wax trucks."