Charlotte Kalla

U.S. wins first-ever cross-country ski gold

Kikkan Randall and Jesse Diggins, racing Sunday with quiet confidence, won the team sprint at the 2013 world championships in Val de Fiemme, Italy, the first-ever gold medal for the United States in cross-country skiing. Again, and for emphasis -- the first-ever American world championships gold in cross-country skiing.

Randall and Diggins actually won big, by 7.8 seconds over Sweden's Charlotte Kalla and Ida Ingemarsdotter, women -- and good friends -- the Americans trained with over the summer.

Finland's Riikka Sarasoja-Lilja and Krista Lahteenmaki finished third, 10.95 seconds back.

"It feels incredible," Randall said afterward, adding, "This is something we have looked forward to for a long time. This is my seventh world championships. I've had to spend a lot of time watching awards ceremonies. So we're pretty excited to do it -- in a team event, especially -- and finally get the U.S. on the podium."


Jesse Diggins (left) and Kikkan Randall celebrate after winning the team sprint // photo courtesy Sarah Brunson and U,S. Ski Team

Randall and Diggins make for an intriguing pairing.

Randall is 30, from up in Alaska and, as she said, has been around. The 2014 Sochi Games will be her fourth. She has methodically built her way up to become one of the world's best sprint skiers; last season she won the World Cup sprint title, a first for an American woman.

In Sochi, incidentally, the sprint will be run as a freestyle race, which plays to Randall's strength. She took silver in the individual freestyle sprint at the world championships in the Czech Republic in 2009.

The team sprint was freestyle on Sunday in Val di Fiemme; in Sochi, it will switch to classic.

Diggins, meanwhile, is 21, from Minnesota. She's not awed by any of this big-time stuff. Indeed, in the  news conference after the victory, she said of the Swedes, "This is weird. I still have pictures of these guys up on my wall. They probably don't know that."

Randall and Diggins made it plain that they were for real when they won Dec. 7 in Quebec City. That victory was the first-ever U.S. World Cup team event win.

The Swedes were thought by many to be Sunday's pre-race favorites.

The Americans thought differently.

The plan, which Randall and Diggins and their coaches set out, was to be aggressively conservative.

That is not an oxymoron.

Both women have a strong finish -- a strong kick, just like in track and field -- if there's something left in the tank.

The trick would be to stay in close contact with the race leaders through the first two legs. Then it would be go time.

Diggins skied the third, and decisive, leg. It was here that she broke the Swedes and the Finns -- and, on a steep climb, one of her own poles, too.

As luck would have it, a U.S. coach, Erik Flora, sprinted down the track to give Diggins another pole. She didn't even lose momentum.

U.S. coaches Matt Whitcomb, Erik Flora, Chris Grover after the first-ever American cross-country ski gold // photo courtesy Sarah Brunson and U.S. Ski Team

All Randall had to do in that final leg, to control the race, was ski under control.

"That was so incredible, just seeing that clean snow in front of me and crossing the line," Randall said. "I tried to be stoic and stand up for a while but my legs were pretty dead. That moment when your teammate comes running out and it starts to sink in that you’re world champions -- it’s incredible."

Diggins said, "We both knew that if everything came together just right and we skied really good we had the chance of a medal, but it’s sprint racing, things happen. Your poles come off. People step on your poles. It all came together anyways and that’s a really cool feeling to be able to share with our whole team."


U.S. cross-country ski relay makes history

The United States of America put on a man on the moon 43 summers ago. You wouldn't think, really, that it would take until Sunday to put four American women on the podium in a World Cup cross-country relay ski race for the very first time.

Jessie Diggins, the American anchor, outsprinted Marthe Kristoffersen of Norway II as the U.S. women's 4 x 5k relay team claimed third place Sunday at the World Cup relay in Gallivare, Sweden.

It just goes to show you two things:

One, nothing is impossible. Americans genuinely can excel at cross-country skiing.

Two, when Americans make something a priority, they are as good at it as anybody in the world. This is the lesson of the U.S. Nordic combined team at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, and this is what the U.S. cross-country team is aiming to show the world in Sochi in 2014.

"We skied our hearts out and I am so proud to be a part of something this big," Diggins said.

Norway I won, in a time of 45.32.2; Sweden took second, in 45.51.6.

The Americans: 46.00.4.

Norway II: 46.00.9, just five-tenths of a second behind.

All the signs were there for this on Saturday, when Kikkan Randall finished third in the 10k and Holly Brooks fifth. Liz Stephen had been among the race leaders but broke a pole and ended up 21st.

Randall was last year's World Cup sprint champion.

She and Brooks, in an interview late Saturday, had talked about how so much was changing.

You can see it, they said, in attitudes, and not just within the U.S. team -- where there is the absolute, unconditional belief that they can win -- but from others, and in particular the Scandinavians, who long had dismissed the Americans.

Now, both said, other teams wanted to know whether the Americans would be interested in training with them.

That never used to happen, they said.

That, they said, is a sure sign of emerging respect.

You can see it, too, in resource -- with, for instance, the physical therapist now traveling with the U.S. team. That never used to happen, either.

The previous U.S. women's relay best had been a fifth -- last winter at Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. But that was without Randall, who was out for that race.

Even so, the Americans started Sunday in bib 3, on the front line, with Norway I and Sweden. "Some people at the race today were skeptical that we could put together the four world-class relay legs that it takes to reach the podium in this women's field," the U.S. head coach, Chris Grover, said. "But the women handled the pressure, and did it."

Brooks went first, skiing the first of the two classic legs. She skied solidly, 11.2 seconds out, in eight place.

Randall then skied the fastest classic leg of the day. She moved the Americans up into second, 8.2 seconds back of Norway I.

As the race moved to freestyle, Stephen got the Americans to within 4.2 seconds of Norway I.

Diggins went out knowing that Sweden's anchor, Charlotte Kalla, the Vancouver 2010 10k gold medalist, would probably overtake her. Which Kalla did.

The idea was to hold on to third place.

Kristoffersen actually caught Diggins. Together, they climbed the final hill into the stadium.

Diggins would later tell, which specializes in coverage of cross-country and biathlon: "At the end I could really feel it. I thought, I do no want to lose us a medal here, the girls and the team, the whole team worked so hard this year. I'm not going to screw this up right now. I was able to get just enough energy to get to the end. And then I thought I was going to die. I think I might have been crying."

After Diggins collapsed onto the snow, the other Americans spent maybe 10 minutes in the finish area. There were hugs. There were tears. The TV cameras couldn't get enough.

Later, Stephen told, "I have always looked at the TV and seen people crying after big races. I didn't understand that feeling until today."

U.S. cross-country skiing breakthrough

It's only one race. And most of America won't pay it much notice -- not on a day when USC and Notre Dame were playing football.

But for Kikkan Randall to finish third, and fellow American Holly Brooks fifth, in the women's 10-kilometer freestyle event on Saturday in Gallivare, Sweden, 62 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the opening cross-country World Cup meet of the season -- that is big stuff looking toward the Sochi Olympics, now just a little bit over 14 months away.

The Norwegians, as usual, dominated both the women's and men's events. Marit Bjoergen captured her 56th individual victory, winning in 22:31.8. Another Norwegian, Therese Johaug, took second, 12.6 seconds behind. Randall crossed 25.9 seconds behind, with Charlotte Kalla of Sweden fourth, 15.92 back.

Bjoergen has seven Olympic medals, three gold. Johaug won gold in Vancouver in 2010 in the women's 4 x 5k relay. Kalla is the Vancouver 10k gold medalist.

Martin Johnsrud Sundby won the men's 15k -- his first World Cup win and just second individual win overall -- in 30.37. Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan took second, 8.9 seconds behind; Sweden's Marcus Hellner took third.

The United States has not earned an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing since Bill Koch's silver in Innsbruck in 1976 in the 30k.

But like the U.S. Nordic combined team, which broke through to win four medals in Vancouver in 2010, the trajectory of the U.S. cross-country team -- as Sochi draws into view -- would seem to be pointing in the right direction .

Randall, already a three-time Olympian, is last season's World Cup sprint champion.

Brooks skied on the Vancouver Olympic team.

Both are based in Alaska.

Brooks turned 30 earlier this year. Randall will turn 30 at the end of December.

"I like to say cross-country skiers are like fine wine," Randall said Saturday after the race, adding, "We get better with age. It just takes a lot of years to train the systems for endurance sports. You see it in triathlon, you see it in marathon … it takes maturity and experience."

It takes mental strength.

Brooks said she has with her now a "vivid memory" of a blog post written by Kris Freeman, a top U.S. male cross-country skier, in which he said, paraphrasing, enough with the hero worship. Freeman was the top's finisher Saturday, in 32nd, in the 15k.

For far too long, she explained, "American skiers have looked at Scandinavians and automatically put them on a pedestal. We have thought they are better than we are. That they are superstars. That they grow up on skis, have skiers on cereal boxes and we are just not as good."

Um, why?

Since it was football rivalry weekend back home in the States, why not break out a variation on the football cliché -- everybody puts their skis on one at a time, right?

Out of 77 racers -- one more did not start -- Brooks drew the number six start slot Saturday.  She posted sweet splits but thought little about it, knowing the seeded group of racers, those expected to break through to the podium, were coming much later in the day. She crossed in 23:00.3.

When she finished, as the race leader, Brooks was led to the reindeer-skin leader's chair. And there she sat -- for a very long time.

Through the racers who drew start slots in the teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, even into the 50s.

"They kept telling me, 'You can get up and do something. I was not to get up and leave. As far as I was concerned, that was the best seat in the house.' "

Randall drew start slot 56. She had intended for the race Saturday to be nothing more than a hard workout. Still recovering from a stress fracture in her right foot at the end of the summer, she spent September -- when she typically is ramping up for the season ahead -- on a doctor's-orders 50-percent reduction in her training that included running not on dry land but in a pool.

Upon arrival in Europe, last week, she still had not done any demanding intervals. Then, on Friday, the U.S. team did a workout and, she said, it felt "surprisingly good."

The real surprise, though, was Saturday's third-place. It marked Randall's first-ever non-sprint podium finish.

"The joke on the World Cup circuit now is that everyone needs to do intervals in a swimming pool," Brooks said, laughing.

Seriously, though -- two Americans in the top five. This is how Olympic medals -- plural -- become real possibilities. Another American with experience in the Vancouver Olympics, Liz Stephen of East Montpelier, Vt., who turns 25 in about a month, was skiing in the top five before crashing and breaking a pole; she finished 21st.

The U.S. women are expected to be contenders in Sunday's 4 x 5k team event.

"It's breaking down the barriers and doing this once and making sure you don't underestimate yourself," Brooks said. "If I can do this once, I can do it again. If I can do it. my teammates can do it."

Before Saturday, the refrain had always been, as Brooks noted, "Oh, you're just an American and an American has never been on a distance podium before." She paused. "There's no way. Having these results," she said, "is contagious."