Randall Takes Second Straight Sprint CrownKikkan Randall wins the sprint World Cup in Quebec City on Dec. 8, 2012.
Twelve years ago, in Soldier Hollow, Utah, Kikkan Randall made her first World Cup cross-country skiing start. She finished 24th and, at the time, as she recalled Saturday, "That was so exciting."
Times certainly have changed.
On Saturday, after qualifying 11th and powering through the heats, Randall skied past world champion Marit Bjoergen by a boot length to win a freestyle sprint in Lahti, Finland.
"My skis were awesome today and it's really cool to see what a well-oiled machine we have become," Randall said afterward, underscoring the emphatic reality: in the sprints, the U.S. cross-country program has emerged as a genuine threat to win.
The victory Saturday clinched Randall's second straight World Cup sprint championship.
Barring injury, Randall will start next season as one of the favorites for an Olympic medal next February in Sochi.
Maybe more than one.
A few weeks ago, Randall and Jessie Diggins won the team sprint title at the world championships.
An American has not won an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing since Bill Koch in 1976.
No American woman has ever won an Olympic medal in the sport.
The race Saturday marked Randall's 100th career World cup start. As she said, she was "really hoping to make it a special one."
It turned out to be her 11th career World Cup or World Cup stage victory. For the season: her sixth World Cup or stage World Cup win.
The win gives Randall 488 World Cup sprint points; Justyna Kowalcyzk of Poland has 280. That's a 208-point lead; there are two sprint races remaining, meaning the most anyone could make up is 150 points.
On the men's tour, Sweden's Emil Joensson wrapped up the men's sprint title by defeating Ola Vigen Hattestad of Norway; Joensson now has 466 points. Andy Newell of the United States is second, with 236.
Bjoergen was the only woman Randall had yet to face in a skate sprint all year; the Norwegian skier, long viewed by many as the best in the world, had missed every skate sprint before Lahti because of heart trouble in December.
The race Saturday -- on a short, twisty course -- came down to a photo finish.
Bjoergen didn't quite have the lunge, Randall did, Randall winning by seven-hundredths of a second.
After the finish, the two racers shared a hug.
Bjoergen understandably said later, "I have not raced that much so I feel like the World Cup season has just started for me."
As Randall told the website fasterskier.com, "We're good friends and we got to laugh about it. I asked her what World Cup start this was for her. I said, 'You're probably over 200 by now.' And she said, 'Yeah, probably.'"
Randall also said, thinking back to her first start 12 years ago: "… It's pretty funny that, 100 starts later, we're in the hunt for the win every time in the skate sprint now. I got to go up against one of the world's greatest athletes today and it was definitely close there at the end.
"She was coming on strong but it's just nice to know that … it's taken me a lot of races and a lot of time to get to this point but if you put in the work and stay dedicated then you can be the best in the world.
"And it's pretty fun."