SOCHI 2014

By Paul D. Bowker | Sept. 19, 2013, 1 p.m. (ET)
Kikkan RandallKikkan Randall takes a victory lap with the American flag after winning the FIS Cross Country Ski World Cup individual sprint in Quebec City on Dec. 8, 2012.

WOMEN HAVE MEDALS IN SIGHT

Jessie Diggins (L) and Kikkan Randall celebrate with their gold
medals for the women's team sprint final at the FIS Nordic World
Ski Championships on Feb. 24, 2013 in Val di Fiemme, Italy.

No U.S. female cross-country skier has ever won an Olympic medal, but that dry spell could end for the United States at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins won the gold medal in the team sprint at a world cup in Quebec City in December and then struck gold again at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, in February. Both victories were American firsts. Also this past season, Randall won her second world cup sprint championship and placed third overall. Another first for U.S. women in the sport came last November when Jessie Diggins, Holly Brooks, Kikkan Randall and Liz Stephen claimed a first FIS World Cup relay podium finish, placing third in the 4x5-kilometer in Sweden. At the 2013 World Championships the U.S. team of Kikkan Randall, Jessie Diggins, Sadie Bjornsen and Liz Stephen placed fourth.

CROSS-COUNTRY RUNNING TO CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING

Kikkan Randall is the niece of Olympic Nordic skiers Chris Haines (1976 Winter Games) and Betsy Haines (1980). She was a state high school champion in cross-country running and turned to cross-country skiing to help her offseason conditioning. Randall’s first Olympic experience came in 2002 in a fitting location, her birthplace of Salt Lake City. Twelve years later, she is positioned to become the first female cross-country skier in American history to win an Olympic medal. No American cross-country skier has medaled in the Winter Games since Bill Koch in 1976. The Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games would mark Randall’s fourth trip to the Winter Games, and she has steadily improved each four years. She finished 44th in the sprint in 2002, then placed ninth in the sprint in the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games and sixth in the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. In addition to her gold-medal performances in the team sprint with Jessie Diggins at the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships and 2012 Quebec City World Cup, Randall has medaled 19 times in world cup events and is a six-time U.S. sprint freestyle champion. She won five world cup events last season.

JESSIE DIGGINS: RISING QUICKLY

A three-time state high school skiing champion in Minnesota, Jessie Diggins has quickly skied to the top levels internationally. The Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games would be her first Winter Games following a memorable 2012-13 season in which she scored world championship gold with three-time Olympian Kikkan Randall. A nine-time U.S. champion as a junior, she placed eighth individually in the skate prologue of the 2013 World Cup Finals. Diggins was just 3 when she joined the Minnesota Youth Ski League. She began by skiing on Saturdays with friends, but it soon turned into a daily routine, and now she has a very strong shot of skiing in the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.

BILL KOCH: TEAM USA’S SILVER MEDALIST

Bill Koch, a four-time Olympian who is known as the pioneer of the freestyle technique, burst onto the cross-country skiing picture at the Innsbruck 1976 Olympic Winter Games. He became the first American to win an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing, when he earned a silver medal in the men’s 30-kilometer race. He had the fastest leg in the 4x10-kilometer, pushing Team USA to third place after his leg in a race that the United States would finish sixth. And in the 50-kilometer race, he actually led at the halfway point before falling to 13th. He also skied in the 1980, 1984 and 1992 Winter Games, but wasn’t able to repeat his historic medal performance of 1976. The Bill Koch Ski League for children in grade 8 and under is named after him, and conducts skiing competitions and clinics in the eastern United States.

GOING FOR THREE

Andy Newell poses for a photo at the NBC/U.S. Olympic Committee
promotional shoot in April 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.

One veteran of the Bill Koch Ski League is two-time Olympian Andy Newell, who will be shooting for another American first in Sochi. His 16th-place finish in the men’s sprint at the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games was the best in U.S. history. A crash during the qualifying session at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games ruined his chance for a better finish. The only male cross-country skier to score points in every world cup event this past season, Newell is a medal contender on the men’s side for the United States. He came close in Vancouver, finishing ninth in the men’s team sprint with Torin Koos. Newell recorded six top-10 finishes on the world cup circuit and competed in his sixth FIS Nordic World Ski Championships, leading the United States to a 10th-place finish in the 4x5 relay.

TEAM USA SELECTION

Athletes ranking among the top 50 in the distance world cup standings or the sprint world cup standings on Jan. 12, will qualify to be nominated to the U.S. Olympic Team, pending approval by the U.S. Olympic Committee. If the team allocation isn’t filled using that criteria, then the head coach will nominate additional skiers.

DATES TO REMEMBER

Cross-country skiing Olympic competition will begin Feb. 8, the day after the Opening Ceremony. Ten days of competition are scheduled, beginning with the women’s 7.5-kilometer skiathlon on Feb. 8 and concluding with the men’s 50-kilometer mass start Feb. 23.

THE MEDALS

The cross-country skiing discipline comprises 12 events, making a total of 36 individual and team medals up for grabs in the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. The events include: sprint, team sprint, individual start, skiathlon, mass start and relays.

THE VENUE

 
(L-R): Kikkan Randall, Holly Brooks, Liz Stephen and Jessie Diggins
at the Laura Cross-Country Ski & Biathlon Center

Cross-country skiing will be held at the Laura Cross-Country Ski & Biathlon Center, which is a part of the mountain cluster venues at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. On eight of the cross-country skiing days, biathlon competitions also will be taking place. The cross-country skiing and biathlon courses have their own start and finish areas, and the seating area has enough room for 9,600 spectators. The center is located on the crest and slopes of Psekhako Ridge in the Krasnaya Polyana Mountains. The facility is named after the Laura River, a turbulent mountain river with several waterfalls. The name of the river is based on the legend of a young girl named Laura who chose death by jumping off of a rock into the river instead of being with an old prince she did not love.

THE MASS START

In most cross-country races, athletes leave the start line in 30-second intervals. If a faster skier is about to pass another skier, then the athlete being passed should move over to the side. But in the mass start, which was introduced to the Olympic program at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games, the skiers all started at the same time. They are piled into rows, resembling the beginning of a cycling race. The mass starts cover 30 kilometers for the women and 50 kilometers for the men, making them the longest cross-country ski races in the Winter Games. Because all skiers begin at once, the race to the finish can be dramatic and crowd pleasing. The length of the laps are shortened in the mass start races so that the skiers pass the crowd assembled in stadium seating every 10 to 12 minutes.

THE FREESTYLE TECHNIQUE

Cross-country skiing in the Winter Games changed significantly at the Calgary 1988 Olympic Winter Games, when the freestyle technique was introduced. For years, the classic technique, using a diagonal stride in which both skis stay in a groomed track prepared by machines, was the form used by skiers. But the freestyle technique, a style in which a skier uses a ski to push off to gain more speed, came into fashion. One skier who helped popularize the free technique was American Bill Koch, who used that style during the 1982 FIS World Cup season when he won the cross-country skiing overall world cup title. Koch also earned a bronze medal in the 30-kilometer event that year at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships. After 1988, the technique in the women’s 30 and men’s 50 races alternated with each Olympic cycle.

QUICK CHANGE

The men’s and women’s skiathlon races, which are the first two cross-country events in Sochi, consist of racing in both the classic and freestyle techniques. After the first half of the race is over, during which the classic technique and equipment is used, skiers change their equipment in the stadium area and then proceed for the second half of the race in freestyle. The clock is running during the equipment changes. The men’s race consists of two 15-kilometer segments in 3.75-kilometer loops. The women’s race has two 7.5-kilometer segments in 2.5-kilometer loops. The race starts with a mass start, so that the winner is the one who crosses the finish line first.

WAXING POETIC

Two different techniques, classic and free, call for two different waxes. Glide wax decreases friction between the skis and the snow and is used to make a ski glide faster. The kick, or grip, wax increases friction between the skis and the snow and helps stop a skier from slipping. The kick wax is used only in the classic technique of cross country.

HISTORY LESSON

The art of cross-country skiing can be traced back to days when hunters used skis during the winter and made its debut on the Olympic program at the Chamonix 1924 Olympic Winter Games with men’s races at 18 kilometers and 50 kilometers. Norway won five of the six medals in those Winter Games, including a pair of gold medals by Thorleif Haug. The women made their cross-country debut at the Oslo 1952 Olympic Winter Games with the 10-kilometer race. Finland swept the women’s race, led by gold medalist Lydia Wideman.

Paul D. Bowker has been writing for TeamUSA.org since 2010 as a freelance contributor for Red Line Editorial, Inc. He has been writing about Olympic sports since 1990 and was Olympic assistant bureau chief for Morris Communications at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. He also writes about the Olympic Games for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican.

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