US hopes dashed in Olympic cross-country relay
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — With Norway losing for the first time since 2009, the women’s 4x5-kilometer cross-country relay at the Sochi Olympics got an upset result.
It was not the surprise the American team was hoping for.
Chasing its first Olympic medal in the sport, the United States believed Saturday’s relay could be the race to do it.
Hopes faded quickly, though, as Kikkan Randall finished the opening classic-style leg of the race in 12th place, 39.7 seconds off the lead.
Sadie Bjornsen, Elizabeth Stephen and Jessica Diggins gained back some ground but the U.S. finally placed ninth, 2½ minutes behind champion Sweden, which landed the Olympic title for the first time in 46 years.
“It’s tough to feel that (our hope) was already slipping away on the first leg,” Randall said. “It’s just a real bummer when it’s the first leg and you got three teammates waiting for you really long to put us in a better position.”
Randall had boosted expectations for a first U.S. medal by winning two World Cup races last month. Having started as a favorite, she also failed to medal in Tuesday’s individual freestyle sprint.
“It’s not what I wanted to do today,” said Randall, who was the first starter for her team, having to use the classical style though she prefers freestyle.
“Overall we are a better team of skaters but you have to put some people on the classic leg,” she said. “I can put together some good performances there. Usually it goes a whole lot better.”
Randall got off to a good start but lost pace in her second 2.5-kilometer lap.
“I couldn’t keep my tempo up,” she said, adding she was puzzled about the reasons. “I tried to get it back but I couldn’t find that gear again. Kind of similar to the other day. I am not sure why. Everything seemed to be going well coming in. I have some work to do to figure out what’s going on.”
It wasn’t the warmth or the condition of the snow at the Laura cross-country venue that put the Americans off.
Despite the persistent mild weather, the track was in better condition than for earlier races. Course workers put salt in the course, which stabilized the snow.
“The conditions were really good today,” Randall said. “The track stayed really firm, and my skis were incredible, actually. I had great kick and was I gliding up on people. That was all set.”
Maybe it was all coming down to being too nervous, Diggins said.
“There was a lot of pressure, expectations, high hopes coming in today,” Diggins said. “And I was really nervous. But I stuck to the plan.”
Though ninth was a long way off the spot the Americans were hoping for, the result wasn’t as bad as it might appear at first sight, said Bjornsen, who was in seventh when she finished her team’s second leg.
“We are at the highest level right now, we are at the Olympic Games, and everyone is at their top shape,” Bjornsen said. “Just a small fraction off is where we are today. I think we are completely capable of winning medals.”
Despite the result, Stephen said she was proud of her teammates.
“I can’t believe how lucky I am to be in such a strong women’s team,” Stephen said. “It might never be as amazing in the next 10 years as it is right now so I am enjoying every second.”
It wasn’t the team’s best day, though it was all smiles at the end following a mishap in the final lap.
Diggins led Italy’s Ilaria Debertolis and seemed to help her team settle for eighth. However, when approaching the finish stretch, Diggins went into the wrong lane, had to go back and was passed by Debertolis.
“It was an exciting fight with Italy,” Diggins said. “I was able to make sure that on the last hill I dropped them and then I was basically very close to blacking out and took the wrong lane. And that was obviously really dumb but I’ll laugh about it later.”
Bjornsen agreed, adding “you just have to laugh it off sometimes. If she had been fighting for a medal, maybe we would have been a little more disappointed.”
The next attempt to get the nation’s first cross-country medal takes place Wednesday in the women’s classical style team sprint.