In defeat, US cross-country star Kikkan Randall proves her mettle

The reigning World Cup sprint champion failed to qualify for the Olympic finals today, but showcased the leadership skills that have helped her steer the US team to unprecedented success.

Felipe Dana/AP
United States' Kikkan Randall competes during the women's qualifications of the cross-country sprint at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Feb. 11, 2014, in the Sochi Olympics.

At some point during the next few hours or days, Kikkan Randall will come to terms with what she lost on Tuesday. Perhaps at some point during the next two weeks – or 10 years – Americans will come to realize what she has given.

At about 4:27 p.m. here Tuesday, give or take a couple hundredeths of a second, America’s best chance to win a medal in cross-country skiing since 1976 crossed the finish line in the individual sprint event and looked up at the clock in stunned disbelief. 

She had not won her heat. She had not come second. Her time was not even fast enough to qualify for the next round. Randall, who had only once failed to qualify for an individual sprint final on the World Cup tour since 2010, had failed to make it past the quarterfinals, missing out by 0.05 seconds – less than the length of a ski boot. 

The story of Olympic failure is woven into the very seams of the Games: It is the one chance every four years for many athletes to lift their sport above abject obscurity in America. Yet the bitterness of Randall’s disappointment Tuesday goes well beyond the ordinary. 

The past decade has seen the United States rise to unprecedented success in winter sports where mediocrity had been the rule – from bobsled to Nordic combined. Cross-country skiing has followed this trend, but perhaps no single athlete has been as associated with or responsible for her sport’s rise than Randall. 

Randall’s dedication – so punishing that she was nicknamed the “Kikkanimal” – has brought her from an also-ran in 2002 to a two-time World Cup sprint champion in 2012 and 2013, meaning she was the best female cross-country sprinter in the world for those two seasons, based on cumulative results from November to March. Her success is without precedent in the history of American cross-country skiing.  

Yet perhaps her greater legacy is in not doing it alone – indeed, in obstinately refusing to do it alone. “Team” is a loose word in cross-country skiing – a collection of skiers from one country. But Randall’s commitment to the success of her teammates is more like that of a den mother. 

They dye their hair because she does. They rise to the podium of World Cup races because she did it first. To Randall, “team” has not been the boundary of an athletic obligation but the bond of a deep and genuine affection.  

And that, it seems, has moved mountains. 

Kikkan was the first to win a World Cup medal, in 2007; now there are four other American women who have followed suit, and on Tuesday all four American women advanced at least to the quarterfinals, with one, Sophie Caldwell, making it to the finals. Caldwell was still in medal contention when she got tangled up with a competitor and fell before the final descent, leaving her sixth, but that was still the highest finish ever for an American woman in an Olympic cross-country skiing event. It's also the first time any American woman besides Kikkan has set a historic precedent since her long line of firsts began. 

The American women are not measured in their praise of Randall.

“She tells us all the time how much she believes in us. And I think that that is not a quality that you find in every teammate,” says teammate Liz Stephen, who was part of two US relay teams that each won World Cup bronze. “She’s never once held back something that had helped her because she didn’t want us to catch up.” 

“She’s a world-class athlete, and also a world-class teammate and friend.” 

They are kind words – the sort that journalists love. Then teammate Jessica Diggins comes in after her own disappointment in the individual sprint Tuesday – also going out in the quarterfinals – and those words begin to have meaning. Asked about her own performance, and she speaks with perfect composure about where things could have gone better, how she can learn from this.  

Then, asked about Randall, she lowers her glittered face. “My heart broke a little bit,” she said, struggling against tears. 

She looks up and recalls the first thing she remembers about Randall at the finish line: She was smiling.  

“That shows you what kind of person she is.” 

Not so long ago, Diggins had waited in line for an autographed poster from Randall – a line so long that by the time Diggins got there, all she got was a torn-off piece of cardboard box signed by Randall. She put it on her wall. Last year, she teamed up with Randall to win a historic gold in the World Championships team sprint.

Now, her sporting hero has given her something more: perspective.  

Make no mistake, Randall was not blithely dismissive. In a peculiar quirk of Olympic cross-country skiing, Randall will not be able to ski this event – her best – for another eight years. Every four years, the individual sprint alternates between freestyle and classical style. This year was freestyle, and freestyle is Randall’s strength.  

There is still hope for an American medal in Saturday's 4 x 5 km relay or next week's team sprint. Despite today's disappointment, a medal in either of those events would be sweet victory for the closely-knit US women's team.

Randall was leading her quarterfinal coming into the stadium, she was in second – which would have qualified her for the semifinals – at the turn. Even at the last moment, had she lunged for the finish as skiers normally do, she might have made up the extra 0.05 seconds that would have gotten her into the semifinal on her time alone. “But I just stiffened up,” she said after the race. 

“I’m sure I’ll be reliving those moments many times in my head,” she added. 

The moments she looked for the “extra gear” and couldn’t find it. The moments that pushed her out of a race she had prepared eight years for. The moments that meant most of America would never know of how profoundly she and her teammates have changed American cross-country skiing in the past four years, because there would be no medal to prove it. 

She descended a staircase after the race, and the media were waiting to ask her questions that included, “What did it feel like when you saw everyone passing you?” 

For a moment, she faltered. At the bottom of the stairs, she broke into tears. The team press officer shielded her from view as she gathered herself. Within a half minute, she was on her way to the press, composed but distant. She was still in those last few moments, wondering how she could possibly have ended up here while the race was still going. 

And then she was gone. By the time Caldwell was in the start house before the sprint final, Randall was there, too. 

“She was smiling, and she gave me a hug,” Caldwell said.

Perhaps Randall was not in the final. 

But in a way, she was. 

Christa Case Bryant contributed reporting from Jerusalem. 

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