On the opening day of her biggest season yet -- one filled with medal expectations for February's Winter Olympics -- Kikkan Randall showed Friday that she's still a work in progress.
Which is pretty remarkable, considering that for the last two seasons she has been the best in the world at what she does.
An Anchorage skier who has spent more than a decade making history for the U.S. Ski Team, Randall recorded a personal best at the World Cup opener in Kuusamo, Finland. She earned a podium spot in a classic-technique sprint race for the first time in her career.
Randall, who is the two-time defending World Cup sprint champion largely because of her prowess in the freestyle technique, finished second in the finals at the Ruka Triple, a weekend-long series of races that kick off the cross-country season.
"Feeling pumped and satisfied with my first (World Cup) classic sprint podium today," Randall, 30, wrote in an email. "I was feeling pretty anxious the last few days wondering how the season would begin. I'm very happy to see that all the positive feelings about the way training has gone in the offseason are confirmed."
The medal was the 21st of Randall's career. She has claimed medals at World Cup races and World Championship races, but she has been denied at three previous Olympics.
Victory went to Poland's Justyna Kowalski, and the bronze medal went to Germany's Denise Herrmann. It was the first podium appearance for Herrmann, who said in the post-race press conference that she qualified for her country's Olympic team by advancing to the semifinals and was able to ski more relaxed in the final two rounds.
The U.S. Olympic team won't be named until early next year, but barring the unexpected, Randall will be the team leader. The sprint race in Sochi, Russia, will be a freestyle race, Randall's specialty, and everyone in the world who follows the sport expects Randall to win a medal.
Randall had an adventurous final Friday. A couple of skiers got tangled ahead of her, slowing her progress on the 1.4-kilometer course. She made up the time lost on a big hill near the end of the course.
"We are really excited for Kikkan," said U.S. Ski Team coach Chris Grover, a West High graduate. "Getting her first podium in classic sprint was a major goal of hers, so it's so gratifying to see her meet that goal in the first World Cup of the season. She looked increasingly strong throughout the day. Both her striding and her double-poling looked very powerful and efficient."
It was a good day all around for the Americans -- and for Alaska Pacific University's nordic program. Sadie Bjornsen, who trains at APU with Randall, had the third-fastest time in the qualifying round and joined Randall and Ida Sargent in the quarterfinals.
"Sadie had a breakthrough day in qualification," Grover said in a press release.
Norway superstar Marit Bjoergen topped the qualifying in 3 minutes, 8 seconds but failed to get to the semifinals. Herrmann was next, followed by Bjornsen in 3:08.33. Kowalski placed eighth in the qualifying race, Randall was 12th and Sargent, who missed advancing to the semifinals by a boot length, 18th.
Five other Americans failed to advance from the preliminaries, including APU skiers Holly Brooks (fifth American, 48th overall) and Rosie Brennan (seventh American, 77th overall).
"It was great to have many members of the team ski well today," Randall said. "Sadie was amazing in the qualifier. Ida skied a super-gutsy quarterfinal and if she had larger than size 5 feet might have made the semis."
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG