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U.S. Cross-Country Skiers Are Raising The Bar

By Paul D. Bowker | Nov. 28, 2014, 2:40 a.m. (ET)

(L-R) Marit Bjoergen of Norway, Kikkan Randall of the United States and Stina Nilsson of Sweden compete in the women's team sprint semifinals at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 19, 2014 in Rosa Khutor Russia.

When Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins line up in the women‘s sprint Saturday at the FIS Cross-Country World Cup season opener in Ruka, Finland, visions of a medal are almost certain.

Remember, this was a duo that combined for a gold medal in women’s team sprint at the 2013 World Championships. Both are defending world champions. Randall has won three straight world cup sprint championships.

After a year in which the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games resulted in just an 18th-place finish in the women’s sprint and an eighth-place finish in the team sprint, Randall is ready for a new season to begin. The blackboard slate is clear. The snow is fast.

“It’s great to be back in Europe ready to begin another season,” Randall said. “We have a strong contingent of returning members from last season’s record-breaking team, and spirits are high as we head into the opening world cup weekend in Ruka.”

The U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team arrives for a world cup season with a squad packed with Olympians who’ll be aiming for podium finishes all year long. Every member of the “A” and “B” national team are Olympians or members of the world championship team.

“This is a strong team with proven performance,” national team coach Chris Grover said. “Each year we see more depth. Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins showed that two years ago winning the world championship team sprint. Noah Hoffman and Simi Hamilton each won stage legs last year. And Sophie Caldwell stepped onto her first world cup podium in Lahti, Finland.”

Among the new skiers on the “A” team is 24-year-old Caldwell, a five-time All-American at Dartmouth College whose sixth-place finish in the sprint final in Sochi marked the highest finish ever at the Winter Games for a U.S. female cross-country skier. She survived a run to the Olympic final while Randall and Diggins did not.

Also on the “A” team is Simi Hamilton, a two-time Olympian who won a stage of the Tour de Ski in 2014 and helped Team USA to a sixth-place finish in the men’s team sprint classic in Sochi.

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

Diggins, at 22, was the youngest member of the cross-country team at the Sochi Games. She had two top-10 finishes in Sochi: Eighth in the women’s skiathlon and ninth in the women’s relay with Randall, Sadie Bjornsen and Liz Stephen. The relay finish was the best in U.S. history.

The team prepared for the opening of the world cup season by training for most of October in Park City, Utah, at the Center of Excellence and Soldier Hollow. They also trained at Canmore Nordic Centre in Canada, as well as Alaska’s Eagle Glacier in July and in Muonio, Finland, prior to the Ruka World Cup.

Beyond the world cup season, a focus has been on preparing for the 2015 Tour de Ski, which consists of seven stages. All skiers on the “A” and “B” teams will participate in Tour de Ski.

“We are approaching the beginning of the season with more hard training than we have in the past, knowing that we may sacrifice performance in some of the early world cups with the intent of being sharpest in February for world championships,” Grover said. “The athletes have done the hard work that was necessary to take another big step forward in Falun (Sweden, host of the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships).”

The leader clearly is Randall, a native of Alaska who is the most decorated Nordic skier in American history. She was captain of the relay team that finished in ninth place. After making her fourth Olympic team in a career that has produced 26 world cup medals and 17 national championships, Randall was positioned for a medal run in Sochi. It never happened.

“It was sort of like a perfect storm of a lot of little things that didn’t go quite right,” Randall told the Wall Street Journal in October.

Sochi’s disappointment may motivate Randall even stronger toward a world championship medal this season, not to mention a fourth consecutive world cup globe.

“World championships in Sweden in February will be a big target for the team, especially in the relay events,” Randall said. “It feels great to have the whole team back together, and we can’t wait to get the season started.”

THE WORLDS: The Nordic World Ski Championships will be held in Falun, Sweden, beginning Feb. 17 and going through March 1. Randall and Diggins will aim to defend their team sprint championship.

OLYMPIC SPIRIT: All seven skiers on the “A” team are 2014 Olympians — Randall, Diggins, Caldwell, Bjornsen, Hamilton, Stephen and three-time Olympian Andy Newell.

FAST AND FEMALE: Randall is the lead U.S. ambassador for Fast and Female, a non-profit group that helps empower girls by getting them on skis.

Paul D. Bowker 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 Olympic sports for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Bowker has written for TeamUSA.org since 2010 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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