KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The U.S. women’s cross-country ski team came to the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games with great expectations. Those expectations were highest for the 4x5-kilometer relay, a race in which the team has been on the world cup podium twice in the past couple of years. Why not here in Sochi?
But on another spring-like day in the Caucasus, it was not meant to be for Team USA. After hanging with the lead group for about half of her leg, leadoff skier Kikkan Randall dropped off the pace. She handed off to Sadie Bjornsen in 12th, almost 40 seconds behind.
At the end, Jessie Diggins crossed the line in ninth, the best relay finish ever at the Olympic Winter Games for the U.S. women but still far from the medals.
“Not what we were hoping for, but we could not have tried any harder,” said Diggins, who needed to lose her lunch after she finished.
While it appeared that Randall had lost the race for the team, split times showed the true story. Bjornsen, Liz Stephen and Diggins were able to pull the team back into ninth, but with every lap, they lost time on the leaders.
Sweden won the gold medal — the country’s first Olympic relay medal since 1968 and first gold since 1960. After leading for much of the race, Finland settled for silver, with Germany taking bronze.
“We knew that there were probably five or six teams in the hunt for those medals,” said Randall. “We knew we would be in the hunt if we put it together. It was tough to feel that already starting to slip way on the first leg. I tried to dig and tried to get it back but couldn’t find that gear.”
Remarkably, the U.S. women were not devastated. Since coming together as one of the world’s strongest teams in the past couple of years, the Americans have been known to go especially deep in team events — and for wearing whacky striped socks.
“That’s how we ski relays,” Diggins said. “Sometimes that means we’re in the hunt for medals, and sometimes that means we’re at the back of the pack. We prepared as well as we could, we pushed ourselves as hard as we could, and we believed in each other. And that’s what matters.”
In a pre-race team meeting, the women discussed three goals for the relay, including never say die and fight until the end, believe in teammates, and believe in themselves.
“We can use that fuel better than any team in the world, I believe,” said women’s coach Matt Whitcomb.
Whitcomb also encouraged the women to get their sparkle on — something else they do that perhaps better than any team in the world. Their cheeks sparkled with glitter and red, white and blue face paint.
And they wore their lucky socks — jester-like striped knee socks that Randall picked up at a European convenience store two years ago. They have worn the socks to podium finishes in relays and team sprints, including the team sprint gold at the 2013 world championships. Asked why the socks didn’t seem to work in the Olympic relay today, Stephen smiled broadly and said that they did work.
“The relay socks are a mentality,” she said. “You put them on, and it’s relay day. It’s about the team, and you go out and fight until you bleed, and that’s what we do every time we put them on. They worked. They just aren’t as fast sometimes.”
The women also claimed that the pressure of expectations did not weigh on them in the relay, and Whitcomb agreed. The team has two sports psychologists with them, and “we have hardly used them because the team chemistry and stability of the team is so great,” he explained.
Although Randall is off her game at these Olympic Games, Whitcomb pointed out that the rest of the team is having personal bests. Diggins finished eighth in the skiathlon with Stephen in 12th, and in her first year on the U.S. Ski Team, Sophie Caldwell made the sprint final, finishing sixth. Randall just can’t find her top gear.
“We’re at the Olympic Games and everybody’s at their top shape,” said Bjornsen. “If you’re off a little bit, you’re off. That’s part of it. Our team is capable of winning medals. We’ve done it before, and I think we will again. Today was just not the day.”
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.