U.S. Cross Country Skiing Breakthrough
Kikkan Randall competes in the FIS Cross Country World Cup Tour de Ski women's 15 km on January 6, 2011 in Toblach, Italy.
The Norwegians, as usual, dominated both the women's and men's events. Marit Bjoergen captured her 56th individual victory, winning in 22:31.8. Another Norwegian, Therese Johaug, took second, 12.6 seconds behind. Randall crossed 25.9 seconds behind, with Charlotte Kalla of Sweden fourth, 15.92 back.
Bjoergen has seven Olympic medals, three gold. Johaug won gold in Vancouver in 2010 in the women's 4 x 5k relay. Kalla is the Vancouver 10k gold medalist.
Martin Johnsrud Sundby won the men's 15k -- his first World Cup win and just second individual win overall -- in 30.37. Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan took second, 8.9 seconds behind; Sweden's Marcus Hellner took third.
The United States has not earned an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing since Bill Koch's silver in Innsbruck in 1976 in the 30k.
But like the U.S. Nordic combined team, which broke through to win four medals in Vancouver in 2010, the trajectory of the U.S. cross country team -- as Sochi draws into view -- would seem to be pointing in the right direction.
Randall, already a three-time Olympian, is last season's World Cup sprint champion.
Brooks skied on the Vancouver Olympic team.
Both are based in Alaska.
Brooks turned 30 earlier this year. Randall will turn 30 at the end of December.
"I like to say cross country skiers are like fine wine," Randall said Saturday after the race, adding, "We get better with age. It just takes a lot of years to train the systems for endurance sports. You see it in triathlon, you see it in marathon … it takes maturity and experience."
It takes mental strength.
Brooks said she has with her now a "vivid memory" of a blog post written by Kris Freeman, a top U.S. male cross country skier, in which he said, paraphrasing, enough with the hero worship. Freeman was the top U.S. men's finisher Saturday, in 32nd, in the 15k.
For far too long, she explained, "American skiers have looked at Scandinavians and automatically put them on a pedestal. We have thought they are better than we are. That they are superstars. That they grow up on skis, have skiers on cereal boxes and we are just not as good."
Since it was football rivalry weekend back home in the States, why not break out a variation on the football cliche -- everybody puts their skis on one at a time, right?
Out of 77 racers -- one more did not start -- Brooks drew the number six start slot Saturday. She posted sweet splits but thought little about it, knowing the seeded group of racers, those expected to break through to the podium, were coming much later in the day. She crossed in 23:00.3.
When she finished, as the race leader, Brooks was led to the reindeer-skin leader's chair. And there she sat -- for a very long time.
Through the racers who drew start slots in the teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, even into the 50s.
"They kept telling me, 'You can get up and do something. I was not to get up and leave. As far as I was concerned, that was the best seat in the house.'"
Randall drew start slot 56. She had intended for the race Saturday to be nothing more than a hard workout. Still recovering from a stress fracture in her right foot at the end of the summer, she spent September -- when she typically is ramping up for the season ahead -- on a doctor's-orders 50-percent reduction in her training that included running not on dry land but in a pool.
Upon arrival in Europe, last week, she still had not done any demanding intervals. Then, on Friday, the U.S. team did a workout and, she said, it felt "surprisingly good."
The real surprise, though, was Saturday's third-place. It marked Randall's first-ever non-sprint podium finish.
"The joke on the World Cup circuit now is that everyone needs to do intervals in a swimming pool," Brooks said, laughing.
Seriously, though -- two Americans in the top five. This is how Olympic medals -- plural -- become real possibilities. Another American with experience in the Vancouver Olympics, Liz Stephen of East Montpelier, Vt., who turns 25 in about a month, was skiing in the top five before crashing and breaking a pole; she finished 21st.
The U.S. women are expected to be contenders in Sunday's 4 x 5k team event.
"It's breaking down the barriers and doing this once and making sure you don't underestimate yourself," Brooks said. "If I can do this once, I can do it again. If I can do it, my teammates can do it."
Before Saturday, the refrain had always been, as Brooks noted, "Oh, you're just an American and an American has never been on a distance podium before." She paused. "There's no way. Having these results," she said, "is contagious."