The Olympics dealt Anchorage skier Kikkan Randall more frustration and disappointment Saturday, this time extending the pain to Randall's teammates in a relay race that refused to go according to plan in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.
An American team brimming with medal expectations was out of contention three or four kilometers into the women's 4x5-kilometer mixed-technique relay. They finished ninth, 21/2 minutes behind the winners.
"That was a tough one today," said Randall, who skied the opening leg. "I went deep into the hurt box and unfortunately I kept getting slower and slower at the end.
"Ah, shoot. Not what I wanted to do today."
It was a crushing setback for a team -- Randall, Anchorage's Sadie Bjornsen, Vermont's Liz Stephen, Minnesota's Jessie Diggins -- capable of much better. The American women, led by Randall, have emerged as a force on the world stage in recent years, a status cemented by last season's bronze medal in a World Cup relay.
"This morning there was a ton of pressure and expectations with everyone saying, 'This is it! This is your shot to win a medal,' '' Diggins said. "Realistically there were six or seven teams that had a shot to win that gold medal today, and as you saw, things didn't shake down exactly how you might have expected them to every other World Cup weekend."
In the most stunning result so far at the Sochi Games, Norway failed to earn a medal in a race it was overwhelmingly favored to win. Despite a lineup that consisted of the top four skiers in the world, the Norwegians finished fifth, well behind the medalists.
Sweden grabbed the gold on the strength of Charlotte Kalla's phenomenal anchor leg. Kalla, the first three-medal winner in Sochi, made up a 25-second deficit on the leaders and then sprinted past Finland and Germany to get the win in 53 minutes, 2.7 seconds.
Finland was second in 53:03.2 and Germany was a surprising third in 53:03.6. The United States lagged behind in 55:33.4.
"We all had expectations for today, of course," Anchorage coach Erik Flora said. "It was an unusual day with the results. It's an unfortunate day, for several teams."
The race drew a large crowd of Team USA fans that headed onto the course decked in stars-and-stripes-adorned gloves, scarves and headbands.
Their prospects of seeing history -- the first Olympic medal for the United States since 1976 -- were quickly dispatched.
Randall, a four-time Olympian whose bid for an individual medal in the freestyle sprint was dashed Tuesday, was in second place early in the relay's opening leg. At the 2.5-kilometer mark, she was in fifth place and sticking with the leaders.
Another kilometer or so and everything changed. She went from being two or three seconds behind to nearly 40 seconds behind.
"I was feeling good and then the pace accelerated on the second lap and I just flooded (with lactic acid) and I couldn't keep my tempo up," she said. "I'm kind of at a loss why. I had a great workout on the course two days ago and felt totally really coming into today.
"...It's just a real bummer when it's the first leg and you've got three teammates waiting for you. I really wanted to put us in a position today."
Randall tagged off to Bjornsen in 12th place, 39.7 seconds off the pace.
Bjornsen moved the Americans up to ninth place with her classic leg, but the gap stretched to 64.9 seconds.
The U.S. fared no better when the technique switched to freestyle. The team trailed by 1:34.9 by the time Stephen tagged off to Diggins.
Asked what it was like to watch their teammates' race come apart, Vermont skiers Sophie Caldwell and Ida Sargent stood silently for 20 seconds.
"A little heartbreaking," Caldwell said finally, "but they clearly fought each leg."
"This is one day," Sargent said.
Bill Marolt, CEO of the U.S. Skiing Association, called the result "frustrating, because we do have a good team."
Norway's failure was epic. Since claiming the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, it had won 10 straight World Cup and World Championship relays. The team of Heidi Weng, Therese Johaug, Astrid Jacobsen and Marit Bjoergen was considered invincible.
"You saw all kinds of weird things out there today," Brooks said. "A lot of people had tough days out there."
Flora offered that Sochi has been filled with surprises since competition began.
"To a certain degree," he said, "it's the Olympic Games."
By BETH BRAGG