- Women's 30km Free Mass Start
30k skiers: team's strategy backfired
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Three members of the U.S. women’s cross-country ski team finished Saturday’s 30km freestyle race in the top 30, but most said a team tactic designed to keep them on fast skis as the day heated up may have backfired.
“We made a pre-race strategy to change skis because we felt like it was going to slow down out there, but I think that may have been a mistake,” said Kikkan Randall of Anchorage, Alaska, who finished 28th – 4 minutes, 5.05 seconds off the leaders.
“A lot of the girls I was skiing with didn’t change and I never caught back up to them,” said Randall, who like two other teammates Liz Stephen of East Montpelier, Vt., and Diggins, 22, of Afton, Minn., actually changed skis twice. Holly Brooks of Seattle, Wash., swapped once.
Leaving the track to run through the transition zone can cost precious minutes but if snow conditions change, switching to a ski with a different wax or grind can make all the difference.
The day started off cold and temperatures reached into the 50s by mid-race.
Randall said the coaches tested the course on Friday and found that the skis slowed after the first 10-kilometer lap so the team decided that swapping would help them maintain a good glide.
But Saturday’s snow didn’t change as dramatically as expected and changing may have been unnecessary.
“I had really good skis on the first lap and I was kind of like, ‘Ah, should I?’” Randall said. “But we said it’s really important so I went ahead and changed and then wanted to get back on my first pair again at the end. It wasn’t as slow as we thought out there.”
The Norwegian team of Marit Bjoergen, Therese Johaug and Kristin Stoermer Steira did not swap skis during the race and instead pulled away from the rest of the pack and kept building a gap on a chase group that reached more than a minute by the end.
Bjoergen’s win was her sixth gold medal and when coupled with her three silvers and a bronze, she became the most-highly decorated female Winter Olympian with 10 medals total. She completed the 30km race in 1:11:15. Johaug won silver, 2.6 back and Steira bronze.
Liz Stephen was the top U.S. finisher at 24th and 3:06.6 back from Bjoergen. Stephen, known for her positive energy, struggled to keep smiling after the race. She, too, questioned the ski-change plan.
“It was interesting watching their whole (Norwegian) team ski away from the first exchange,” she said. “It was tempting to go with them, for sure. I’ve definitely done that in the past and it hasn’t worked out in my favor. I have no idea what the right answer was today.
“But I chose to change and that’s what happened.”
She said the course was hilly and the day hot – race conditions that usually favor her talents.
“Today was not my day,” she said to reporters in the mixed zone. She paused and stepped away to compose herself for a few minutes, and when she came back, she had a tear rolling down her cheek, but she was still smiling.
“There was a lot of pressure going into the Games for us this year, and good pressure because it means people are watching and people care,” she said. “We have the chance to potentially get a podium in a lot of races here this year and that was really exciting.
“But today I just wanted to come out here and smile as big as I could on the start line and I did that and I skied with no stress out there,” she said. “I was trying to enjoy myself, that’s when I ski my best.
“I’m just happy to have started my fifth Olympic race ever.”
Vancouver Olympian and Seattle native Brooks finished 27th, just in front of Randall. She said she went into the ski exchange “kind of like a sheep” following her teammates.
“The team came into the day thinking it was going to be way faster to switch skis,” Brooks said. “Who knows? Maybe my skis were fast enough, but I lost the entire pack (when I switched) and I don’t think that those girls were skiing that much faster than I was.
“So I’m just really bummed.”
She said she’s been on the other side of that plan, too.
“In Oslo 2011 I didn’t switch skis, I skied right through the exchange zone and then everyone caught me and just flew past me, so I had that in the back of my head,” she said. “I thought maybe my skis were going to make a difference today but I felt good and I lost the pack so I’m bummed about that.”
For Diggins, the ski change wasn’t the issue – the heat was.
“First time up this really big hill I reached a certain temperature and just shut down,” she said. “It was pretty immediate.”
She kept pushing by pouring water bottles over her head to cool off, she said.
“I’m just proud of myself for finishing,” she said. “It was a brutal race.”
A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
Erik Flora, director of Alaska Pacific University and coach of most of the U.S. cross country team, said the team came into the Olympics with high expectations and a lot of pressure, and despite the struggles, they ended on a positive note.
“This is the first Olympics that we’ve come in with a team that has medal potential,” he said. “Any time you come in for the first time, you learn a lot and we learned a ton.”
No U.S. team member stood on a podium but the women’s team achieved two best-ever results for a U.S. woman in the Olympics, he said.
Sophie Caldwell made it to the finals in the relay and finished sixth and Diggins was eighth in the skiathlon.
“I’m incredibly proud of the ladies, and the men too,” he said.
Randall agreed, and said they can build on their Sochi experiences.
“I can certainly say it’s been a character-building couple of weeks,” she said. “It’s not exactly what we had imagined.”
She said the team was wise to enter the Games with confidence.
“We learned a lot,” she said. “We know we’re close. We’ve got to keep fighting to get it right. I think overall we still had a successful Olympics.”
Bellisle writes for the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Men's 5000m Relay Finals