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History, but no medal, for US women in Olympic ski relay

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: February 17
  • Published February 17

Kikkan Randall tags off to Jessie Diggins after the third leg of the women’s 4×5-kilometer relay at the Winter Olympics. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Leave it to Kikkan Randall, who has already galvanized a generation of U.S. Olympic skiers, to inspire the next wave of Olympians who are waiting on deck.

Randall, 35, is nearing the end of a career in which she made the improbable possible by lifting the U.S. women's team from obscurity to excellence on the world stage. In Saturday's 4×5-kilometer relay, the five-time Olympian skied brilliantly in what may be her final race at the Winter Games.

She and teammate Jessie Diggins of Minnesota both posted the third-fastest times of their respective relay legs, but it wasn't enough to put the U.S. relay team on the podium in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The Americans finished fifth — 37.2 seconds out of the bronze-medal position — in a race many thought might produce the first Olympic medal for the U.S. women. At the last three World Championships, they finished fourth in the relay, and they brought high hopes into the Olympics.

At the finish line, there was a group hug and smiles all around but no medal – only the best relay result in Olympic history for the U.S. women, who finished seventh in 1980 and 1984.

And that's something Randall believes is worth celebrating.

"While we tend to be really focused on the medals because we know deep in our hearts that it is possible, it's amazing to put together four strong legs and to get that best ever result," she said in a teamusa.org race report.

A rough first leg put the Americans more than a minute out of the lead and 57 seconds out of third place, dimming if not dooming their bid to earn the country its first Olympic medal in cross-country skiing since Bill Koch claimed silver in 1976.

Marit Bjoergen celebrates after beating Sweden’s Stina Nilsson to lift Norway to victory in the relay. The win gives Bjoergen a record-tying 13th Olympic gold medal. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

The medals went to the usual suspects – Norway, Sweden and skiers from Russia. Norway's Marit Bjoergen pulled away from Sweden's Stina Nilsson in the final few hundred meters to secure victory for her team in 51 minutes, 24.3 seconds.

Sweden clocked 51:26.3, and the Russians claimed the bronze in 52:07.6. Finland was fourth in 52:26.9, followed by the Americans in 52:44.8.

It's the 13th medal in five Olympics for Bjoergen, who tied the record for the most hardware in the history of the Winter Olympics. She shares the mark with Norway's Ole Einar Bjorndalen, a six-time Olympic biathlete.

The U.S. struggled early when Vermont's Sophie Caldwell, 27, fell way off the pace in the classic-technique scramble leg. She was 8.1 seconds out of the lead halfway through her leg but faded in the second half.

By the time she tagged off to Anchorage's Sadie Bjornsen, she had dropped into 11th and was 61.5 seconds out of the lead and about 57 seconds out of the bronze-medal position.

Bjornsen, 28, lifted the U.S. into eighth place by skiing the sixth-fastest time of the second classic leg.

Randall moved the Americans into sixth place in the first of two freestyle legs. Her time of 12:12.9 made her the leg's third-fastest skier behind Ragnhild Haga, whose sizzling 11:46.7 put Norway back in the race after a poor second leg, and Ebba Anderson, who finished in 12:11.4 for Sweden.

Bjoergen anchored Norway's win in 11:52.8 to hold off Nilsson, who completed the 5K in 11:58.2. Diggins had the leg's next best time, 12:11.7, to cross the finish line in fifth place.

"We're going to walk away proud of what we did here today because there's more to it than just medals," Diggins said in the teamusa.org report. "Seeing everyone go out there and lay down a solid race and give it everything they had, that's what really matters."

There are two women's races left in these Olympics, Wednesday's team sprint and the Feb. 25 mass-start 30K. Diggins has come agonizingly close to medals in two individual races in Pyeonchchang, and at the 2013 World Championships she and Randall won the team sprint.

While she and others members of the team may stick around for another Olympic cycle, Randall is ready to tag off to the next wave of skiers who grew up idolizing her.

It's a promising bunch. At the World Junior Championships in 2017, the U.S. team of Hailey Swirbul, Julia Kern, Hannah Halvorsen and Katharine Ogden won the bronze medal in the relay, a first for the United States. At this year's World Juniors, Swirlbul, who skis for UAA, won two individual medals, also a first for the United States.

Soon it will be time for them to take up the quest for an Olympic medal.

"We had to leave something for the next generation to go after," Randall said. "I mean, come on, this group, we've had a lot of firsts. But there's a really awesome young group of girls coming up with junior world podiums in the relay.

"So I think there's high hopes, and we can hopefully leave a good path for them."

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