RYBINSK, Russia (Jan. 21) - Two-time Olympian Kikkan Randall (Anchorage, AK) earned the first World Cup cross country podium by a U.S. woman Sunday, finishing third in a photo finish in a 1.2K freestyle sprint.
Randall, who set U.S. marks for women's Olympic and World Cup cross country results last season, qualified ninth, was second in her quarterfinal heat, led her semifinal heat and lost the photo finish to Germany's Claudia Kuenzel-Nystad. The podium tops her fifth-place result in Borlaenge, Sweden, after the 2006 Olympics. Andy Newell (Shaftsbury, VT) was 10th behind Italy's Renato Pasini in the men's sprint with Torin Koos (Leavenworth, WA) 19th.
Following a day of rain, Sunday dawned with temperatures around 20 degrees F. Arianna Follis of Italy won the sprint with Kuenzel-Nystad, the wife of ex-U.S. Coach Trond Nystad, in second, Randall third and World Cup leader Virpi Kuitunen of Finland fourth.
"Claudia got me by an inch or two and I got [Kuitunen] by an inch or two. It was wild," Randall said.
Originally, Rybinsk was to have held a team sprint, but when a lack of snow forced cancellation of a sprint in Cogne, Italy, Rybinsk picked up the individual race rather than go on with the team event.
Coach: Randall is "...the right kind of mean"
Randall came up with a strong tempo in the finals heats, where the top two skiers advance. She was second in the quarterfinal (behind Kuitunen), led her semifinal heat (ahead of Kuitunen) and was in the final charge to the finish line, again just ahead of Kuitunen.
Head Coach Pete Vordenberg said, "Kikkan's a crafty racer besides being fit and fast. She's the right kind of mean - when you're racing, and she blasts her way through a spot too small to get through. Kikkan's really crafty."
"I had a dream last night that I'd qualified third, but I didn't see how I did in the finals heats because the dream didn't go on long enough," Randall laughed. "I was happy when I woke up and saw it had cooled off [after Saturday's rain] and the track had firmed up."
She described the course as "kinda tough with a gradual climb out of the start, then a short downhill, an uphill and then a steep climb, a big fast downhill that brought you close to the finish." The finish was a slight uphill "with the finish line was kind of a bump. I stumbled but managed to stay on my feet," she said.
Randall, who has trained on the Eagle Glacier outside Anchorage with Alaska Pacific University Nordic club members, said, "Conditions were what you might see on a glacier in Alaska during the summer, and I've asked myself, 'When am I ever gonna race on this?' It was good to have that experience...
She didn't give up when she was blocked
"Coming up the climb, I was back in, like, fourth or fifth - I got closed out just as I was rarin' too because climbing is one of my strengths. I worked my way up to third as we went over the top of the hill and I thought, 'Man, I'm in a perfect position on this downhill. I can draft...and just as I got ready to make my move [in the final sprint], I was blocked. So I had to go to the right, go to the outside, and then Arianna Follis was right there, so I had to go even farther out. As we entered the finish lane, I was in fourth, but I worked my way up and we all went for the finish line...
"I didn't know what happened, what place I got, and they said photo finish, and then Claudia was second, I was third. She got me by an inch this time," Randall said.
She thanked Vordenberg for great skis - "He did a great job as a one-man show getting my Fischers ready. I mean I was up against skiers with big waxing teams, a dozen or more, and Pete did it all himself, just great work."
Randall also credited team dynamics, starting with Kris Freeman (Andover, NH) finishing fourth at the 2003 World Championships and producing two World Cup top-10s in the 2005 season plus Newell's performance, including the first U.S. podium since 1983 last season when he was third in the inaugural World Cup in China. "I'm just excited being in the momentum of the team, what Kris started and Andy's continued with his good results. It's contagious and I'm happy to do my part. I knew this was coming and today was a good day to make it happen," she said.
"I'm happy to have skied in there and felt competitive with those guys. At the start, I looked to one side and there were [Czech Olympic champion Katerina] Neumannova and Kuitunen [recent winner of the first Tour de Ski], and on the other side, there was Claudia Kuenzel and Follis, and all of them have won World Cups. So, that's what I want to do and it was fun to be competitive with them."
Vordenberg said simply, "Kikkan knows what she's doing every day, she's so professional. But I gotta tell you, my heart was in my mouth in that final. I could barely stand it."
Russian organizers used ingenuity
Randall was "fighting the whole time. She got caught up with someone on the steep climb, stumbled and almost went down but she regained her composure quickly," he said. The three who were so close made it dramatic "but Kikkan had to have fitness just to be there, and she used her craftiness wherever she could. She's been doing a great job with APU and what Erik Flora's got going there, and Chris [Grover, U.S. sprint coach] stays in touch with them when she's not with us..."
The course, he said, was a marvel of local engineering. "I've never seen anything like this course. They had chopped blocks of ice out of river or lake ice and they cobbled together a course, just like a cobblestone street, piecing the blocks together. And then they had crushed ice - like they'd put it through a wood chipper, and not little crushed ice but like ice cubes in a drink...and covered that with slush," he said. "Then it got cold and snowed, the chunks of ice with the new snow...oh, just amazing...where there shouldn't have been any skiing, they did an amazing job. Such creativity...and it was a good course, a good one."
Rybinsk, several hundred kilometers (about 250 miles) north of Moscow, at the confluence of the Volga and Sheksna rivers, turned the weekend into a ski festival. "They had huge crowds, people coming up in buses, all so loud - I mean LOUD - and having a great time. It's like this was the only game in town and everyone came to have a fun time," he said.
The World Cup schedule heads next to Otepaeae, Estonia, home of Olympic double champion Kristina Smigun. The men race 15 kilometers and women have a 10K classic technique race Saturday and then CL sprints Sunday.
VIESSMANN CROSS COUNTRY WORLD CUP
Rybinsk, RUS - Jan. 21, 2007
1.2K Freestyle Sprint
(Moved from Cogne, ITA)
Men's 1.2K FR
1. Renato Pasini, Italy
2. Nikolai Pankratov, Russia
3. Tobias Angerer, Germany
4. Vassili Rotchev, Russia
5. Martin Stockinger, Austria
10. Andy Newell, Shaftsbury, VT
19. Torin Koos, Leavenworth, WA
Women's 1.2K FR
1. Arianna Follis, Italy
2. Claudia Kuenzel-Nystad, Germany
3. Kikkan Randall, Anchorage, AK
4. Virpi Kuitunen, Finland
5. Natalia Matveeva, Russia
For complete results: