Kikkan Randall really outdid herself Sunday, which is saying something for the Anchorage skier who seems to break barriers and set new standards of excellence every time she puts on a race bib.
The three-time Olympian had one of the greatest races of her career Sunday in Falun, Sweden, to score the points she needed to capture third place in the final World Cup overall cross-country ski standings.
It's the first time an American woman has reached the World Cup podium for finishing in the top three of the final overall standings, and it's the second time any American has done so.
"It's been a long season and a lot has happened," Randall told fasterskier.com Sunday, "and I really wanted to cap it off with a strong performance today and hang onto that third spot.
"And I did, so I'm just super happy and looking forward to celebrating with my team and coming back and celebrating in the U.S."
The overall standings combine a skier's results in both sprint and distance races. Randall, 30, ranked No. 1 in the sprint standings and No. 10 in the distance standings, and combined her results placed her third overall. Last year, she finished fifth overall.
One of the world's top sprinters for several years, Randall earlier this month captured her second straight World Cup sprint title. But it took an outstanding performance Sunday in the final race of the season for her to clinch a spot on the overall podium.
Randall recorded the second-fastest time in a 10-kilometer freestyle pursuit race for the best distance result of her 13-year World Cup career.
She started the pursuit in 15th place and needed to finish 15th or higher in order to hold onto third place in the overall standings. In other words, if anyone passed her, she could forget about the overall podium.
She did far better than that -- she passed eight skiers to finish seventh. In the final two kilometers, she blazed past four women.
"It's unbelievable," U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb said. "It's just a great way to finish it, having one of her strongest races and performances to complement the other great results."
The United States landed four women in the top 30 of Sunday's pursuit. Liz Stephen of Vermont placed 16th, Jessie Diggins of Minnesota placed 26th and Holly Brooks of Anchorage placed 27th.
The race marked the end of a World Cup season in which Randall racked up podium finishes in 11 sprint races and combined with Diggins to earn the United States' first world championship in nordic skiing; Randall and Diggins won the sprint race at this year's World Championships in Italy.
With Randall leading the way, the U.S. women's team had its best season in history. Four Americans joined Randall in the top 40 in the overall standings, including Brooks (35th), Randall's teammate in Alaska Pacific University's nordic ski program.
Randall's accomplishments this season are even more impressive when you remember that she spent most of the summer in a walking boot because of a stress fracture in her foot.
With the possible exception of Bill Koch, no other American has had a more successful nordic ski career than Randall. Koch remains the only American to win an Olympic medal in the sport, silver in 1976, and a generation ago he became the first -- and until Sunday, the only -- American to finish in the World Cup's top three overall.
Koch is remembered for revolutionizing the sport by popularizing and refining the skating technique. His Olympic medal inspired thousands of kids to take up cross-country skiing.
Randall may well be remembered as being one of the sport's great ambassadors. She is on the board of directors of Fast and Female, a program spearheaded by Olympic medalist Chandra Crawford of Canada that aims to empower girls through sports. On Monday, Randall will be joined by all of her U.S. teammates at a day-long event for girls in Falun, the first Fast and Female event to be held in Europe.
Like Koch, Randall is inspiring a new generation of kids, especially girls, to ski. The Twitter message she sent Sunday after clinching her podium spot was directed at them:
"To be 3rd ranked in the overall season is pretty cool feeling and very possible for any American dreaming so, if its your dream, do so!!!"
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG