Over the last 17 years, Kikkan Randall has ascended to the top of the world ski sprint rankings. She’s come back from major injury only to experience heartbreak by milliseconds. She’s gotten married and given birth to her first child. And despite winning three World Cups and medaling in the three separate World Championships — including a gold in team ski sprinting with teammate Jessica Diggins in 2013 — she’d never captured an Olympic medal in five trips to the Games.
On a frigid Wednesday night under the lights in PyeongChang, that changed. Randall, 35, and Diggins, 26, in her second Olympics, won gold in a thrilling team ski sprint final, with Diggins edging past Sweden and Norway in the final lap.
It’s the United States’ first ski sprint medal — man or woman, team or individual — ever, and only its second-ever cross-country skiing Olympic medal. Bill Koch won silver in the now-defunct men’s 30k in 1976 in Innsbruck.
Randall, starting in pole position after she and Diggins posted the top semifinal time, led for the early part of the first lap but faded just a bit and finished the first exchange in fourth, just a few yards behind the leaders, Norway. The United States stayed at or near the top of the pack for the next several laps, with Diggins taking and maintaining a lead on the fourth lap before handing it off to Randall. By the fifth and final exchange, Norway, Sweden (.35 seconds behind) and the United States (.75 seconds behind) had separated from the pack by a wide margin. Diggins quickly took the lead once again in impressive fashion on the first ascent before falling back to third about halfway through the final lap.
But Diggins, who finished sixth in the individual sprint and fifth in both the 15k and the 4 x 5 relay, found a stunning extra gear at the end. She surged past Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla on the final downhill and then past Sweden’s Stina Nilsson on the final straightaway, finishing in 15:56.47, less than two-tenths of a second ahead of the Swedes. After a thrilling finish Diggins and Randall collapsed onto the snow in an emotional embrace.
After individual ski sprint made its Olympic debut in Salt Lake City 2002, team ski sprint debuted in Turin in 2006. The United States, led by Randall and Wendy Kay Wagner, finished 10th in Turin and then sixth four years later in Vancouver. At Sochi in 2014, Randall and Sophie Caldwell finished sixth. Sprinters alternate the six laps —three apiece — on a course that features several different climbs, turns and descents.
It was a exhilarating and emotional finish for Randall and Diggins, and one that will leave their names in the United States Olympic record books forever.
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