Week before Sochi, Erik Bjornsen skis to career best

Beth Bragg

With the Winter Olympics opening ceremonies less than a week away, Alaska's four Sochi-bound cross-country skiers showed they are up to speed at a World Cup race in snowy Toblach, Italy.

The U.S. Ski Team landed five women in the top 22 in the women's 10-kilometer classic, a show of force that included 15th-place Kikkan Randall, 17th-place Sadie Bjornsen and 22nd-place Holly Brooks of the Alaska Pacific University nordic ski program.

But it was Erik Bjornsen's 18th-place finish that created the biggest buzz for Team USA. The finish marked the first time in his career that Bjornsen, 22, scored World Cup points.

"HUGE CONGRATS to Baby BJ on FIRST WC points by a mile!" Brooks tweeted.

"18th in the world today for the smiliest guy I know! First World Cup points and many more to come," chimed in Vermont's Ida Sargent, who placed 20th in the women's race.

Bjornsen was the top American in the men's 15-K classic. That was a sizeable step forward for a man who earlier in the week placed 17th in the 15-K classic and 18th in the freestyle sprint against a less experienced and accomplished field of skiers at the U-23 World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy.

It was by far Bjornsen's best individual result in a limited World Cup career. His previous bests were 34th in a freestyle sprint two weeks ago in Poland and 36th in a 15-K classic in December 2012.

Skiing on nearly three feet on fresh snow, the Americans were led by Liz Stephen's 11th-place showing in the women's race. Norway's Marit Bjoergen and Therese Johaug finished 1-2.

Most of the Americans were coming off a week-long, high-altitude training camp in Seiser Alm, Italy. Training "went exactly as we had planned and my form is sharpening more with each session," Randall, an Olympic medal favorite in the freestyle sprint, wrote in an email.

"It was great to get back to racing today. I haven't done so much distance racing since Christmas so it's taking a little bit to get the feeling back."

The race represented a bit of a breakthrough for Brooks, who is headed to her second Olympics despite struggling in the first part of this season.

Brooks, 31, took an impromptu trip back to the United States in mid-January, leaving her U.S. teammates in Europe and spending time in Colorado and Utah, training and seeing friends and family.

"There is something really really nice about taking some time in the States -- recovery and independence that you can't get in a hotel room," she wrote in her blog. "I find that even my subconscious can rest when I can read street signs, drive cars, find familiar food in the grocery store and call people on my PHONE!"

The change of scenery may have helped. The result was Brook's second best individual effort of the season (after a 21st-place finish in a 3-kilometer prologue race in Germany) and it marked just the third time in 12 individual races this season that she scored World Cup points.

Sunday will bring the final World Cup race before the Olympics, a freestyle sprint. That event is Randall's specialty, and the race will be her final tuneup before facing great expectations in Russia -- she is on track to become the first American woman and the second American ever to claim an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing.

"It's great to be in the final stretch to Sochi," Randall said. "The energy and spirit on the team is high and we're really looking forward to the (G)ames."

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.