At the World Cup races in Quebec City last weekend, the U.S. women’s cross-country ski team was easy to spot. Their neon green down jackets and pink warm-ups and headbands seemed to announce that this team is no longer going to blend in at the back of the pack.
But mostly, they were easy to spot because they were atop the podium. Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins won the U.S. team’s first team sprint, and Randall rounded out the weekend with the individual sprint win.
Coming off a historic 2011/2012 season — where Randall paired with 22-year-old Sadie Bjornsen and then 20-year-old wunderkind Jessie Diggins to rack up two World Cup team sprint podiums; Diggins, Holly Brooks, Liz Stephen, and Ida Sargent (Randall was ill) skied to a best-ever fifth-place in a 4x5km relay; Randall earned her first overall World Cup sprint title; and six women earned World Cup points for finishing in the top 30 throughout the season — the U.S. women’s cross-country ski team came into the 2012/2013 season with high expectations.
And they have more than lived up to them. At a World Cup 4x5km relay in Gaellivare, Sweden, in November, they bested last year’s fifth place by taking third, and Randall claimed her first World Cup podium in a non-sprint race (10km freestyle), while Brooks finished fifth.
“Expectations have changed in the realm of three weeks,” said Brooks, 30, an unheralded skier who made the 2010 Olympic team. “It used to be a top 30 was good. Now we want top-10s.”
Then came the freestyle team sprint win in Quebec City. (The team sprint is held on the World Cup twice each season and features teams of two cross-country skiers taking three turns each on a 1.6-kilometer loop. The event can either be a freestyle sprint, where skiers use the skating technique, or a classic sprint, where they ski in the traditional kick-and-glide style.)
In their second team sprint together, Randall and Diggins skied a tactically smart race to win in dominating style. Diggins took over the lead on her last of three legs, and Randall maintained it to the line. This win bodes well for the U.S. women at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games where the freestyle team sprint is on the program.
And to think until last year, the U.S. women rarely even fielded a team in the World Cup team sprints.
For Randall, the team’s success has been a long time coming. The 29-year-old Alaskan has been on the U.S. Ski Team for a dozen years, competed in three Olympics and six World Championships, won six individual World Cup sprints, and earned a silver medal at the 2009 World Championships. But she has yet to win an Olympic medal. This is something she is actively working to change.
Thanks to Randall, her teammates now believe that they can win. And this belief has been key to their success in the past year.
“That’s been a big shift for us,” Randall said after the team sprint win in Quebec City. “We used to come here and want to be in there. Now we know if we put good races together, we can be in there. So it’s a very different mentality and different level of confidence.”
The belief began slowly building in 2007 when Randall scored her first World Cup podium. Then Liz Stephen finished third at 2008 U23 World Championships. These results helped up-and-coming Americans realize that they too could win in this European-dominated sport.
Head coach Chris Grover sees the emergence of really talented up-and-comers, like Bjornsen, Diggins, and Sargent, guided by Randall’s leadership, as another key to the team’s success.
“Kikkan’s shown them the path of how hard you have to train, how you have to professionally conduct yourself, how professionally you have to treat recovery,” he said. “It’s brought the whole program along.”
Another key element has been off-season training camps with other top World Cup teams. Two summers ago, Randall invited the Canadians to a camp in Alaska. This past summer, the U.S. women trained with the Swedish team, going on three-hour bog runs and doing intervals and races on rollerskis. Coming into the camp, some of the U.S. women feared that their Swedish counterparts would be so fit that they would ditch the Americans out on the tundra.
Not only did they hang with the Swedes, they gained valuable confidence.
“Part of me was expecting some kind of epiphany; that I would learn something revolutionary,” wrote Brooks in her blog. “Instead, this trip seems to reinforce what I already know, how I train, and that I seem to be on the right course. … that the way the Swedes do it isn’t really that different.”
“A year ago, I never would have imagined myself feeling comfortable enough to laugh and joke or run and ski alongside these [Swedish] girls, many of whom are my idols on the World Cup circuit,” wrote Sargent on her blog. A former standout on the Dartmouth College ski team, Sargent, 24, was part of the 4x5km relay that finished fifth last February.
Grover sees international camps like this as another critical link in the women’s success.
“It’s very easy for us in North America to be isolated and to do our own thing and have no measuring stick with which we can compare how we are preparing to compete against the best in the world,” he said. “So the partnership with the Canadians and the Swedish has really raised our guys’ games. Everybody knows what the standard is. Everyone knows how to measure themselves. There are really accomplished women pushing these guys.”
While team sprints and the relays have been where the whole team has enjoyed World Cup success in the past year, the U.S. women are also striving to medal in the individual events at both the 2013 World Championships in February and at the 2014 Olympics. With 17 World Cup medals, Randall has already established herself as a favorite. Diggins and Brooks have come close as well, both with fifth place finishes in individual World Cup races.
“I think we’re focused on all of the races,” said Sargent. “But the relays are just so much fun. We’re working together, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Just don’t look for the neon pink and green at the Olympics. They’ll be back in red, white, and blue.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.