Holly Brooks

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 fasterskier.com, 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 FIScrosscountry.com, "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 U.S.men'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."

Kikkan Randall's conditioning thing

Every July 4th in Seward, Alaska, there's a race called Mount Marathon. It's not a marathon. It's a different kind of ordeal.

One of the oldest-known races in the United States, dating to 1915, it's a 3 1/2-mile torture that goes up and then back down a 3,022-foot mountain. You come down in about a third the time it takes to go up; in all, the winner -- at least on the women's side -- takes just over 50 minutes. Outside of the Iditarod, the sled race, it might be one of Alaska's premier sporting events. Big local bragging rights are involved -- for instance, Nina Kemppel, who raced in four Olympic Winter Games over her cross-country career with the U.S. Ski Team, is a nine-time winner.

In the Randall household, there was this: Mom Debbie won the race in 1975. Aunt Betsy, who competed as a cross-country skier in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Games, won it three times, from 1979 to 1981. Daughter Kikkan -- well, as a cross-country skier, Kikkan might well have won a world championship silver medal in 2009, might have recorded two World Cup wins, might last season have become the first American woman ever to make the podium (third) in the final World Cup sprint standings …

But she had yet to win Mount Marathon.

Four times she was a runner-up.

Until this past July 4.

When Kikkan, racing side by side with Alaska Pacific University club teammate Holly Brooks for most of the race, finally broke through -- winning in 52:03, Holly 19 seconds behind.

The U.S. Ski Team leaves for Europe in just a few days; the World Cup cross-country season starts in Norway on Nov. 19. Kikkan Randall just wrapped up a summer of training that makes you understand fully the dedication and drive of championship athletes.

They are indeed different from the rest of us.

Mind you -- this isn't even an Olympic year.

There are two long years to go, in fact, before we even get to the Olympic year. This is the kind of year where even the most seasoned pros can find it difficult to sustain their energy.

Not Kikkan.

Even on vacation -- in Maui, at the end of April, with her husband, Jeff Ellis -- a really, really fun day was not to idle on the beach with fruity drinks. Oh, no. A really, really fun day was to go for a three- or four-hour bike ride.

"Every once in a while he looks at me and rolls his eyes and tells me I'm crazy," she said, laughing.

Then again, she said, when training for the winter season began in earnest on May 1, those bike rides meant "my body wasn't starting from total standstill."

Look, let's face it, Kikkan said: "I definitely like to be doing stuff."


Training in the back-country in Alaska with her Alaska Pacific club team.

Doing a triathlon and setting a new PR in the running leg. In Alaska, when they hold a triathlon in May, they have to make allowances for the swim portion -- they do it in a pool.

Heading to Sweden for more than two weeks of training with the national team there. And here was a revelation. It used to be that the Europeans thought little, if at all, about the American cross-country performers. Now that Americans are winners in the sprints, though, the Europeans have noticed. "Two years ago, I was there to learn and watch. Now they are there to observe me," Kikkan said.

Back to Alaska for Mount Marathon and then several weeks of "pretty hard weeks of training."

Cut in with all of that were visits to schools for a program called "Healthy Futures" and work with another initiative that Kikkan supports called "Fast and Female."  She said, "I benefitted from having great opportunities to play sports and then be active. It empowered me. I want kids to have those same opportunities that I did. A little hard work pays off -- you can do anything if you have belief in yourself."

Which is where she finds herself this World Cup season. She has proven herself in the sprints. Now -- the distances.

She said, "Every year I am getting closer. It just takes time to develop fitness and the confidence to race with those girls. In a couple years, I can be challenging for the top in the distance races as well.

"Kris Freeman," one of the top American men, "has been so close several times, Kikkan said. "He has shown it is possible."

Kikkan is 28. In Sochi in 2014, she will be 31. If she were a gymnast, at 31 she would be an old lady. For a cross-country skier, it's entirely different. She said, "I feel like I am just now entering my stride. Most people would be winding down. Mine is just now speeding up."