Expectations were so great for Kikkan Randall's big race at the Winter Olympics that Anchorage's Joey Caterinichio, the nordic program director for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, waited at the finish line Tuesday with an American flag tucked in her backpack. She was ready to give it to Randall in the event there was a victory lap.
The flag never left her backpack.
Randall, a medal favorite in the women's freestyle sprint race, was knocked out in the quarterfinals, coming up five-hundredths of a second short of advancing the semifinals.
Five-hundredths of a second "is an incredibly close margin and I'm sure I'll be reliving those moments hundreds of times in my head," Randall told reporters in Sochi, Russia. "... I'm sure it'll sink in and sting for a while but I was happy to be on my feet today, happy to be in the fight.
"I gave everything I had and just to come into the Games as a gold medal contender was incredible."
The eyes of the world -- including many bleary-eyed ones in Alaska, where more than a few either stayed up very late or woke up very early to watch the race -- were on Randall. The 31-year-old Anchorage woman was attempting to become the first American woman, and the second American in history, to earn an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing.
"My heart is breaking for (her)," teammate Holly Brooks of Anchorage tweeted.
"My heart broke a little bit," teammate Jessie Diggins told FasterSkier.com.
Randall's quest for a medal isn't over. She is a strong contender in two other events -- Saturday's 4x5-kilometer relay and next week's team sprint. At the 2013 World Championships, Randall and Diggins captured the gold medal in the team sprint.
"I'm so, so glad there's a couple of great races to look forward to," Randall told FasterSkier. "That's making today a little easier, that's for sure."
Skiing in her fourth Olympics, Randall placed fourth in her quarterfinal heat after being outlunged at the finish by an Italian skier who grabbed the final spot in the semifinals.
Randall led for much of the 1.3-kilometer race but didn't have an answer when Germany's Denise Herrmann and Norway's Marit Bjoergen passed her in the final meters, or when Italy's Gaia Vuerich came from behind to lunge past her at the finish.
"She fought with everything she had," Erik Flora, Randall's coach at Alaska Pacific University, told FasterSkier. "Tough."
Gold went to Norway's Maiken Caspersen Falla, silver went to Norway's Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg and bronze went to Slovenia's Vesna Fabjan.
Providing smiles for the American team was Sophie Caldwell of Vermont, whose smooth skiing carried her into the finals, where she was sticking with the leaders until a crash took her out of contention.
Caldwell's finish is the best sprint performance by an American in Olympic history, surpassing Randall's eighth-place finish in the classic-technique at the 2010 Vancouver Games. Randall placed ninth at the 2006 Olympics, the last time the Olympics offered a freestyle sprint, which is Randall's specialty.
"I've been thinking about this race for a long time and we've been planning it out and showed up today ready to go," Randall told reporters. "I was really happy with the way the preparation has been coming into these games. I felt really strong and ready to go today. I've always said my No. 1 goal was to come in ready to go and ready to fight for the medal and give it everything I had, and I did that today."
Skiers encountered warm weather and soft snow at the Laura Biathlon and Ski Complex. Crashes were common. Bjoergen, a medal favorite along with Randall, was eliminated from the semifinals by a crash, and the men's final turned into a demolition derby -- half of the field went down in a three-man pileup.
Randall, the two-time reigning World Cup champion in the sprint, wound up in the toughest of the five quarterfinal heats, pitted against Herrmann, the current World Cup leader in the sprint, and Bjoergen, the defending Olympic champion in the sprint and the gold medalist in the first cross-country race in Sochi, Saturday's 15-kilometer skiathlon.
Randall took the lead after about 30 seconds in a race that took less than three minutes. Herrmann came on strong at the end, picking off Bjoergen and Randall, and Vuerich came from nowhere to beat Randall by a ski tip, finishing in 2:35.65 to Randall's 2:35.70.
The top two finishers in each of the five heats automatically qualified for the semifinals. The final two spots went to the so-called "lucky losers" -- the two nonqualifying skiers with the fastest quarterfinal times.
By edging Randall, Vuerich claimed one of those spots. The other lucky loser was France's Aurore Jean, who placed third in the first heat in 2:35.55. Had there been a third lucky loser, it would have been Randall.
"I was fighting for every second, because lucky loser spots are always available," Randall told FasterSkier. "Unfortunately my legs got a little stiff and I didn't quite get in the lunge I wanted.
"... I was feeling really good and was ready to come off that final turn and have a good finish stretch but that final gear wasn't quite there and unfortunately I fell apart a little bit before the finish."
As much as Randall wanted the win -- her resume includes everything but an Olympic medal -- she said at the beginning of the season that she was not going to hang her career on the results of a single race, even an Olympic race. No American skier, not even 1976 silver medalist Bill Koch, has had more success -- two world championship medals, 30 World Cup podium appearances, 13 World Cup victories.
"If the last four, eight or 12 years really hinged on today, I would be bummed, I would be really sad," U.S. Ski Team women's coach Matt Whitcomb told FasterSkier. "I'm fine with the result. Everybody on the team -- Kikkan, her coaches, the entire staff -- did a phenomenal job. Today's result is just what happens."
Randall's success has lifted the U.S. women's team to its highest level in history. That's not lost on people like Whitcomb, who noted that Caldwell's historic performance Tuesday was made possible by Randall's historic career.
"The person who was most disappointed with her race today helped the person who was most successful today over the last couple of years," Whitcomb told FasterSkier.com. "Nobody's happier for Sophie probably than Kikkan. That's the kind of champion Kikkan is."
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG