US cross-country women's 'team spirit' puts them in podium contention

After two bronze-place finishes on the World Cup circuit, the US women's relay team could win its first Olympic medal tomorrow. Their success is due in part to exceptional team unity.

Matthias Schrader/AP
United States' Sophie Caldwell, left, and Sadie Bjornsen hang jokingly on the Olympic rings during a cross country training session prior to the Winter Olympics in Russia. The US team skates for a medal in the 5 x 4 km relay race tomorrow.

No American woman has ever won an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing, so there were high hopes that Kikkan Randall would make history in the individual sprint at the Sochi Games. Instead, the reigning World Cup sprint champion uncharacteristically faltered, and missed the semi-finals by a heartbreaking 0.05 seconds.

But in a way, it would be fitting if that historic US medal came in tomorrow's 4 x 5 km relay. For in a sport in which camaraderie often takes a back seat to individual success, Randall has led the American team not only to groundbreaking results but to exceptional team spirit that has enabled them to break the glass ceiling of a European-dominated sport.

“I think our team has set a standard on the World Cup … other teams want to recreate that,” says Liz Stephen, who calls Randall a "world-class" teammate. “Everyone wants to know, ‘What’s your secret? You guys have never been good. Why are you guys good all of a sudden?’ Our answer is always – we’re a team.”

The World Cup circuit, which seldom leaves Europe, is grueling for the Americans, many of whom live out of a duffel bag for five months. But that pushes the women – and their male teammates – to develop a stronger cohesiveness that is lifting them to better results. They show up on relay days with glitter and striped socks for the ladies, go sledding together on days off, and challenge competitors from other countries to music-video contests.

The progress has been dramatic. At the 2010 Olympics, Randall was the sole American woman to crack the top 25; on Tuesday, the US placed all four girls in the top 20. 

Last year, Randall led the American women to their first World Cup relay medal – bronze – in Gällivare, Sweden. This year the US squad repeated the feat despite a crash and a broken pole, and are looking for an Olympic medal on Saturday.

“They inspire everyone with how they work and stand together,” says Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, one of the world’s best skiers this year and a member of the powerhouse Norwegian team. “That is the reason why everyone was crying together with them when they reached the podium in the relay in Gällivare in November 2012.”

“I see so often that a strong skier (like Kikkan) will do her own things instead of working with the younger skiers and contributing to the team,” adds Jacobsen, who joined the US team for pre-Olympic summer training in Alaska. “And now the others have improved so much that they help Kikkan develop, too.” 

From back of the pack to medal contenders 

Randall for years was one of the few American women on the World Cup and often finished in the 40s or 50s. But she was confident the United States could rise to the top. 

Her role on the team has been pioneering,” says Holly Brooks, Randall’s teammate on the Alaska Pacific University squad and a member of last year's triumphant relay team. “At a time when [others] were kind of embarrassed to be [representing] USA, she was dyeing her hair red, white, and blue. It was almost like that glass ceiling was never there for her, and if it had been, she would have just shattered it anyway.” 

For Diggins, the self-described "little sister" of the team, Randall has long been a role model. After winning a race at Junior Nationals she stood in line for Randall’s autograph. By the time it was her turn, the posters were all gone, so Diggins walked away with a ragged piece of autographed cardboard box.

It was still hanging on her wall back in Afton, Minn., when she was chosen to compete with Randall in the team sprint at World Championships last year. Unable to calm her nerves, she went into Randall’s room. “She understood even better than I did … that we had a chance to do something that had never been done,” recalls Diggins. They went out the next day and won gold.

Giving back brings more lasting happiness

Now women like Randall and her teammates are inspiring hundreds of young American girls through Fast and Female, a North American organization that fosters healthy lifestyles and leadership skills – and aims to retract whatever glass ceiling they may be facing, from academics to sports, says Brooks.

In turn, it helps the women themselves. "Even when I have tough days out there, I know it’ll make a good story that might help someone else work through adversity," said Randall, president of US Fast & Female, in an interview before the Games. 

And if there was ever a tough day, it was Tuesday. But Randall made it back out on course with a with a smile on her face to cheer Caldwell – nearly a decade her junior – to a historic sixth, the best Olympic finish for any American woman in the sport. 

“If you invest yourself just in your results, you’ll find that you’ll be all over the map in terms of happiness,” says head coach Matt Whitcomb, who has been credited with playing a huge role in developing the team's cohesiveness and confidence. So while he and his team are unabashed about bringing some hardware home from Sochi, there is a broader goal.

"I can’t think of a better medal to win, if we were to win one, than a relay [medal]," says Stephen. "It’s not that I want the medal, it’s that I want to inspire other people to chase goals and dreams that they have and realize they are possible."

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