It was a disappointing day for Kikkan Randall and her fans. The Anchorage skier failed to medal in the Olympic skate sprint in Sochi- an event many thought she would win. Randall missed advancing to the semifinals by a tiny margin: seven-hundredths of a second. She was gracious with the heartbreaking result saying she was, “happy to be in the fight” and “gave it everything she had.”
Lori Townsend: What do you think happened today?
Nathaniel Herz: It was an interesting day here. It was not super warm but it was just warm enough overnight that it didn’t freeze up and it ended up being soft and sloppy day out on the course. Kikkan had a slower preliminary round of racing than she usually does. And then in her quarterfinal heat… she was facing two of the toughest competitors on the circuit. One was this woman Marit Bjoergen from Norway. And the other was a German woman named Denise Herman who’s leading the sprint standings. And the heat started and Kikkan ended up at the front heading up the hill. And I didn’t actually talk to Kikkan today, my colleagues did.
I talked to Kikkan’s coach (Erik Flora) and he said their plan was to have her lead into the corner after the downhill, because it was a tight corner, and had the potential to be a dangerous spot. So she led through that corner and then they sort of turned, after that corner there’s a straight stretch and then they turned back into the home stretch. On that first straight stretch, Kikkan had been leading and that let her opponents sit behind and build up momentum because they’re not in the wind. And they sort of came around her heading into the home stretch and basically just left her behind there.
The top two advance out of each of these heats. It was super close, I think there was the tactical move to be in the front and then it sounded like on the home stretch she didn’t quite have enough energy to be able to keep up when it really mattered. Her coach, Erik Flora said when it comes to fitness, it’s hard to tell, he thinks it will become more clear if she’s having more problems there during the rest of the races here in Russia. Certainly those are some preliminary explanations. But it’s not totally clear.
LT: Kikkan worked eight years toward this goal. How does she seem to be handling the disappointment?
NH: I have seen Kikkan after a lot of races. Some that have gone really well and some that have not gone well. Her last big sprint race before the Olympics was at the World Championships in Norway a couple of years ago. A similar thing happened there. She was in a preliminary heat and she got tripped up by a Swedish woman. It was a split second and that was it, she was out. She was clearly disappointed and a few minutes later she comes to this area where you do interviews with the media and she was totally put together, she was composed, she was patient with us, answering our questions.
Today, I saw her talking with her husband right after her finish and she just looked a little shocked. One of my colleagues said they saw her in tears and clearly distraught, but then she went through the whole media rigmarole. I did talk to her briefly she said she had to give the same answers about ten times. Then she actually stuck around all the way through the end of the race even though she wasn’t competing because one of her teammates made it all the way through the final round and was actually kind of in medal contention, although she ended up getting caught in a crash. And yeah, Kikkan was out there smiling, talking to her teammates.
I think there’s no doubt that this is totally devastating but she’s a professional. One of the things her coach said [was that] she spent a huge amount of time preparing to win this race and also part of that was preparing if she didn’t win this race. And we talked yesterday and Kikkan said if I don’t win there are a lot of things in my career I can still look back on.
LT: Kikkan’s Olympics aren’t over. What will she compete in next?
NH: Well, there are a couple other events in which the U.S. has a shot at a medal. This was the event where Kikkan was among the favorites. But the team sprint is another event where the Americans will be pretty strong. The coaches still have to pick that team sprint team. There may be a couple of Americans who finished ahead of Kikkan today. There was another American who came in 6th place (Sophie Caldwell). And so it depends who they pick for that team. But someone paired with Kikkan could be in medal contention.
And one of the last events is the relay where you have four women who each ski a leg of five kilometers and the American women, right now, they’re extremely deep and could really be in contention. Norway has a pretty strong lock on that gold medal and then silver and bronze are more up in the air. It’s not a sure thing by any means, but there’s the potential for those guys [the Americans] to be in contention for sure.
LT: Kikkan’s 31. The skate style sprint won’t be back (in the Olympics) for another eight years. Do you think this is it for her?
NH: I haven’t talked to Kikkan about that. I talked to her coach a little bit about that today and he was a little cagey. I think Kikkan talked with Beth Bragg with the Anchorage Daily News earlier and she may have mentioned something about racing on the circuit while starting a family, so what Erik Flora told me today is that she wants to keep racing in some form, what that’s going to look like, whether it’s going to be full time, 100% committed, maybe that will change.
She’s 31, seeing her race another eight years, that’s a lot of time traveling around Europe, but… she’s improved a lot in the other disciplines over the last four years and it’s not unreasonable to see her at the Olympics in four more years, she could be a good enough classic sprinter by then. So that remains to be seen.