Kikkan Randall is on the US Ski Team and skis for Salomon Athlete Force - Salomon Boots and Bindings
What a week it was in Liberec!! Four races, a bunch of personal bests and the grand daddy of it all, a World Championship Silver Medal!!
When I wrote my goals down in my log book at the end of last season, my top goal pretty much took my breath away. "Win a World Championship Medal." It was going to be a big undertaking, and a little bit of a leap of faith, but somehow, I knew a worthwhile pursuit.
The road to Liberec was not quite as I had anticipated it would be. After getting some top results last season, I was starting to gain confidence that I could be a medal threat at this year's World Championships. But then I got a blood clot, and for a short while, I wasn't sure if I'd even be able to ski race again. Fortunately, I was able to get back on my skis. It was a tough road to come back however, physically and mentally. By the start of the race season, I thought I was on track. Yet, the results didn't show it. It took me half the season to find my racing form. It was hard at times to stay confident, knowing such a great opportunity was rapidly approaching and yet feeling so far from being prepared. It wasn't until three weeks ago that I really started to feel race ready. Just in the nick of time!
Finally, after my A-final appearance in Valdidentro, I headed into the World Championships with a good feeling. It was a cautious good feeling. While my racing shape was finally coming around, the same would be true for all of the world's best skiers. It was going to be a fight for the medals!
My first race was the 10km classic. Despite some tricky waxing conditions, my skis ran well and my body felt fresh. I started more aggressive than usual and felt strong through the whole race. As I made my way around for lap #2, the last of the red group were starting. I got to chase Marit Bjorgen up one of the big climbs, with the coaches screaming encouragement, and tried my best to hang with Virpi Kuitinen over my last 2km. I ended up 26th place for my best-ever major championship distance race finish. Another confidence booster.
I got a couple days off from racing before the sprint. There was no lull in action however, as the other American athletes began their assault on the medal count. Kris Freeman skied a great race in the 15km classic, just missing out on the bronze medal by 1.3 seconds. Later that day, USA's Lindsey Van won the first ever women's ski jumping World Championship gold and Todd Lodwick won gold in the men's Nordic Combined. I attended that evening's medal ceremonies, where I got to hear the national anthem played twice and watch the glow on the faces of those standing on the podium. I wanted my shot at that! By the end of the day, the US was leading the medal count, the unthinkable was happening!
At last came the sprint day, my day. I had a great pre-race workout with my coach Erik Flora the day before, and the confidence was high. Even a little battle with shingles wasn't slowing me down. I had to eat my breakfast a little slowly that morning to keep the butterflies in my stomach at bay, and my legs were definitely playing tricks on me in the warm-up. Once I got on course, however, everything felt right. I skied to a solid 7th place in qualifying.
Once I got into the rounds I decided my strategy would be to try and race from the front, to control the pace and stay out of trouble. The strategy worked well, and I felt strong leading both the quarters and the semi's. With each race, the pressure actually seemed to lift off and by the A final I was just ready to go out and ski as hard as I could.
In the A final, I missed my first pole plant but was able to take the lead going up the hill out of the stadium and controlled the race from there. When I was still leading up the final climb, I tried not to think about anything except getting to the finish line as fast as I could. Italy's Arianna Follis tried to get around me on the final corner and I challenged her for a few strides. As we hit the final 100m however, my legs were definitely beginning to lock up and she started to pull away. I fought with everything I had left and when I felt Pirjo Muranen come up beside me, I fought a little harder and then lunged for the line.
For a couple minutes, we didn't know who won silver or bronze. I hoped it was silver, but either way, I knew I was getting a World Championships medal, something I had only dared to dream about. In the end, it was indeed silver, and oh so sweet! A whirlwind would immediately ensue. After catching my breath, several hugs and high fives, I made my way through the media maze to where Jeff (Editor's Note: Kikkan is married as of recently to Jeff Ellis - former Canadian Elite skier) and Erik were patiently waiting. A big hug from my husband, and then my coach, made it all sink in. We had done it!! We had a brief moment to savor, and then I was whisked away to the flower ceremony, press conference, doping control and quick picture with the medal.
That night I got to take my turn on the medal plaza stage. It was incredible. Many thoughts were racing through my mind. I remembered where I was just 10 months earlier, sitting in a hospital bed, wondering if I would be able to ski race again. I thought about all the people that had helped me get to this podium, and wished I could have them all up there on stage with me. The medal was placed around my neck and the flags were raised. The fireworks blasted off above us. These are the moments we dedicate our lives to.
The team did a great job of celebrating our first cross-country medal since 1982 (before I was born). We had a couple champagne toasts and then it was time to turn our focus back to the races that lay ahead. This was one day of three consecutive races for me. I was glad to have another race to look forward to already.
The next race was the team sprint, classic. Laura Valaas and I teamed up in the second semi-final heat. The pace was furious from the start and we tried desperately to hang on. I was a little bit worn out from the day before, but found better form every lap. Unfortunately, we were just out of reach of the pack ahead and finished a few seconds out of advancing to the finals. This is definitely an event were still trying to learn and develop for the future. Two down, one to go.
Outside of the individual sprint, I was next most excited about the relay. We have a pretty young team on the women's side right now (I'm the oldest at 26 and still young), with lots of potential for the future. This would be a chance to get our feet wet and start building confidence for 2010 and beyond. I skied the lead off leg - 5km classic. Once again, the pace was furious from the start. I sprinted hard to keep myself in there and came through the lap with a chase pack of three other skiers, about 10 seconds back from the leading four teams. Going up the big climb midway through the lap, I felt really strong and ran by the skiers I was with. It felt incredible to be able to make such an aggressive move and it kept me gunning the rest of the way. I tagged off in sixth place, 27 seconds off the leader. It was by far my best ever relay start! Morgan Arritola skied a strong second leg and tagged off to Liz Stephen, who skied the 8th fastest on her skate leg. We were hanging strong for a top 10 finish until our last leg. Unfortunately our anchor, Caitlin Compton, didn't have her usual magic and we dropped down to 14th. While our final result was not what we wanted, the day was a success. Lots of good confidence and experience gained!
Wham bam, and just like that, another World Championships was done. There were still a few days of racing to watch, and I enjoyed cheering on my teammates in the men's relay, women's 30km and men's 50km. Liz and Morgan both capped off fantastic championship showings with top 25 finishes in the 30km, making us all really fired up for the future of the women's team. US Nordic Combined racer Billy Demong bounced back from a misfortune in the team event to win his first World Championship gold and together we all celebrated the most successful week in US Nordic history at the medal ceremony on the final night.
Just like after my win in Rybinsk last year, it has been so moving to hear congratulations from everyone, and also to hear about the positive energy that is swelling up all over the country for our sport. I guess that is what makes all of this so special for me. While it can only be me out there on the snow during the race, having everyone along as part of the journey, through the highs and the lows, really makes this a full life experience. Thank you for being part of this silver medal!
The Championships are done, but the season is far from over. On Monday I left Liberec and headed to Lahti, Finland with the US team. Unfortunately, I picked up a cold before leaving and have spent the last few days laying low. My body probably needed a break after so much excitement! I hope to come around in time for this weekend's skate sprint and 10km free. After Finland, we'll spend a week in Norway and a week in Sweden, before heading back to Fairbanks, AK for US Distance Nationals.
A few weeks of racing left... time to make the most of it!