A week after celebrating her 21st birthday with a top-five finish in an FIS race in Norway, Anchorage skier Sadie Bjornsen turned in a career-best performance Saturday on the opening weekend of World Cup competition in Kuusamo, Finland.
Bjornsen claimed seventh place in a 5-kilometer classic race, her third straight impressive result in a classic-technique race. Besides the fifth-place finish in a 10-K a week earlier in an FIS race, Bjornsen clocked the third-fastest qualifying time in Friday's classic sprint to reach the quarterfinals.
In placing seventh Saturday, Bjornsen led a talented U.S. Ski Team women's squad that is focused on making history at February's Winter Olympics. No American woman has ever won an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing.
Anchorage's Kikkan Randall, who claimed silver in Friday's sprint, placed 15th Saturday. She and Bjornsen will be among the leaders for Sunday's 10-K freestyle pursuit race, the third and final event of the season-opening Ruka Triple stage series.
Bjornsen, who battled injury much of last season, excels in classic races and said she was thrilled to open the season with her specialty.
"I went into today really excited," she said in a release from the U.S. Ski Team. "The 5-K classic in my favorite race, so I felt like it was a real treat they had one on the World Cup for my first weekend.
"I was also looking forward to this especially challenging course. With all the steep climbs, I knew that I was going to have to remember to stay light and quick and be OK with the constant burn. Two years ago when I raced here, I really struggled on those climbs, so I was just excited to take on a weakness and see if I improved."
Poland's Justyna Kowalski won for the second day in a row, finishing in 13 minutes, 33.7. Marit Bjoergen (13:36.7) and Therese Johaug (13:48.3) earned silver and bronze for Norway.
Bjornsen finished in 14:02.7 and Randall finished in 14:21.4. Anchorage skiers Holly Brooks (14:56) and Rosie Brennan (15:06.8) placed 53rd and 67th, respectively; Brooks was the sixth American finisher and Brennan was the eighth.
"Super cool to see Sadie have another fantastic performance," Randall said in an email. "I think we're all pretty excited about the relay in Lillehammer next week."
Randall, the World Cup's two-time reigning sprint champion, said she was hoping for more from the first distance race of the young season but is eager for the pursuit.
"I think I started off a little too conservative and gave up time in the first half of the race," she said. "I am looking forward to having a skating race on the final day. I love these mini-tour formats and I like head-to-head racing, so (Sunday) will be fun to go chase after some girls."
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG