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Anchorage skier Kikkan Randall wins Olympic gold

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: February 22
  • Published February 21

Kikkan Randall of Anchorage struck gold in her fifth and final Winter Olympics, winning the women's team sprint race with Minnesota's Jessie Diggins in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Wednesday.

The medal is the first in Olympic history for American women. The nation's only other Olympic medal in cross-country skiing came from Bill Koch in 1976.

"Hearing it out loud, it still doesn't feel real," Randall told reporters. "It's what I've been working on for 20 years and with this team for the last five years and wow, it's just so fun to put it together tonight, finally."

Randall, 35, and Diggins, 26, edged Sweden by .19 of a second to win the 7.5-kilometer freestyle race in 15 minutes, 56.47 seconds. Skiers took turns racing 1.25 kilometers at a time, with Randall going first and Diggins going second.

Both women have had individual disappointments at the Olympics. Randall experienced heartbreak at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where she was a gold-medal favorite in the freestyle sprint but failed to advance to the quarterfinal heats. In two previous races in Pyeongchang, Diggins placed seconds away from bronze medals.

But as the U.S. women like to proclaim on social media, they are #bettertogether. And so it was Wednesday in Pyeongchang.

Anchorage’s Kikkan Randall pursues Natalia Nepryaeva of Russia during the semifinals of the women’s team sprint Wednesday at the Winter Olympics. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

"It's a dream come true. … I got to see in 2013 when we won the world championships that a team gold is worth far more than any individual accolade," Randall told reporters.

"What really kept me going over the last four years was to try and contribute to a team medal here, and to do it here with Jessie one more time, it's amazing."

Diggins, who in the final few meters of the race passed Sweden's Stina Nilsson  with one final burst of grit and power, raised her arms in triumph as she lunged across the finish line.

She let out a roar and then collapsed to the ground on her back, where Randall pounced on her. The two remained dogpiled for a long, jubilant moment.

"Around that final corner I felt like I was coiling a spring and letting it go, digging as deep as I could and putting it out there, because when your team is counting on you, you don't give up – ever," Diggins told reporters.

"I just felt unstoppable, I'm in the best shape of my life right now for sure. That feeling of being able to cross the line and having Kikkan tackle me was the coolest thing ever," she added.

The victory was redemption for both skiers, although both boast resumes that require no excuses or apologies. It's just that until now, all of their triumphs had come at the World Championships or on the World Cup circuit. Olympic glory had eluded them both.

Randall, who starred in skiing and running at East High School in Anchorage and is a longtime member of Alaska Pacific University's nordic ski program, is America's most decorated cross-country skier. She's a three-time World Cup sprint champion, a three-time World Championship medalist and the owner of numerous World Cup podium finishes.

Diggins grew up in Afton, Minnesota, idolizing Randall, and has solidly established herself as a worthy heir apparent. She's also a three-time World Championship medalist — in 2013, she and Randall won the team sprint at worlds — and a frequent visitor to the World Cup podium.

Randall, who is retiring after this season, and Diggins were part of a big lead pack early in the eight-team finals. By the fifth leg — Randall's final leg — it was a three-team race between Sweden, Norway and the United States.

Norway's Marit Bjoergen and Sweden's Charlotte Kalla — two of the sport's greatest competitors — were ahead of Randall but never managed to break away from her.

Jessie Diggins, left, and Kikkan Randall are the first American women to win Olympic medals in cross-country skiing. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

When Randall tagged off to Diggins for the last time, she was in third place, just .75 of a second out of the lead.

Diggins seized the lead quickly. The three leaders soon built a sizable gap, and for the final minute or two of the race it became clear that barring a disaster, Diggins and Randall would claim a medal.

Diggins came from behind in the final few meters to beat Sweden's Stina Nilsson to the finish line. Norway's Maiken Caspersen Falla finished 2.97 seconds behind the Americans in third place.

One of the first people to congratulate Randall was Bjoergen, who also made history by winning her 14th medal, the most in Olympic history. She has won four medals in Pyeongchang to overtake Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjorndalen, who held the previous record of 13 medals.

Randall and Bjoergen, 37, are both five-time Olympians and both are mothers of toddlers. Randall's son, Breck, will turn 2 in April, and Bjoergen's son turned 2 in December. Both have shown that neither age nor motherhood spell the end of a world-class career.

Randall is the sixth Alaskan to win a medal at the Winter Olympics and the first since 2006, when snowboarder Rosey Fletcher and hockey player Pam Dreyer both came home with bronze medals.

Hilary Lindh was Alaska's first Winter Olympian to get a medal, claiming silver in the 1992 downhill. In 1994 Tommy Moe stunned the world with gold in the downhill and silver in the super-G, and in 2010 Kerry Weiland was a member of the silver-medal women's hockey team.

Randall and Diggins set a fast pace in their semifinal heat, which produced all four teams that advanced to the finals as lucky losers.

The Americans were in the lead or close to it in all six legs of their semifinal. Randall, who skied first, got off to a good start, finishing third in the first leg, less than a second out of the lead.

Diggins quickly grabbed the lead and tagged off to Randall in first place. Randall was a close second after both of her next two legs, and each time Diggins surged into the lead.

The pair finished the semifinal in a time of 16:22.56, more than 10 seconds faster than Norway's winning time of 16:33.26 in the other heat.

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