LAHTI, Finland — The U.S. women’s cross-country ski team is all about team. But they have yet to win a world championship or Olympic medal in the race that shows their spirit: the 4x5-kilometer.
And now they will have to wait another year.
For the third world championships in a row, the U.S. women finished fourth in the women’s relay.
Their time of 53:55.3 was 1:33.8 behind three-time defending champion Norway, and just over 30 seconds off Sweden, which outsprinted Finland for the silver medal.
“We’re knocking at the door,” said Liz Stephen, who skied the third leg. “I think we all can admit that we wanted this medal today. But I feel like I have won gold already with this team.”
“We all had pretty good days [today], but when we have really good days, we’re definitely in there,” said team veteran Kikkan Randall. “That’s at least exciting to know for next year.”
The U.S. women began excelling in the 4x5K five years ago when, to raise team spirit after a tough individual race the previous day, they first donned red-white-and-blue-striped socks and painted their cheeks with U-S-A, American flags and glitter. They finished fifth in that world cup relay without team leader Kikkan Randall, who sat out the race with a cold. That relay was a turning point for the team. It helped instill belief in the American skiers — belief that they really could compete with the best in the world.
Since then, the American women have finished on the world cup relay podium four times (world cup relays are only held only once or twice each season).
After winning three medals at this world championships (two in the sprint, one in the team sprint), the U.S. women hoped that the medal-winning momentum would carry over to the relay.
Competing in her sixth relay at world championships, Randall, 34, led off the race in the first classic leg on snow made soggy by wet, warm weather. Five-time Olympic medalist Justyna Kowalczyk from Poland pushed the pace, and only Norway, Sweden and Finland could hang with her. Randall dropped off the pace and tagged team sprint bronze medalist Sadie Bjornsen in fifth, 24.5 seconds off the leader.
For Randall, just making the relay squad was a goal this year. She took last season off to have her first child and has worked hard to regain fitness. Earning a spot on the coveted American relay team was not a given for the three-time world medalist.
“Everybody on our team has been skiing so well, so I really had to fight my way to get a spot on the team,” she said.
In the second classic leg, Bjornsen made up time on the four women ahead of her, quickly passing Poland. But then the Scandinavian trio of Norway, Finland and Sweden began to pull away, and the Americans would ski alone in fourth for the remainder of the relay.
“Sometimes I would look up the hill and they were right there,” said Bjornsen, 27. “Then I’d go down the hill, and they would seem like they were a really long ways away. It was hard to gauge if I was getting near or farther away.”
“Unfortunately, we lost some important time there in the beginning,” said Randall, analyzing the race afterwards. “There is so much momentum when you’re [skiing] in a group. So that was a little bit tough for our girls to be just back, just fighting. I know that’s something that I’ve got to work on for next year.”
Bjornsen tagged Stephen for the first of two freestyle legs in fourth place, 36.2 seconds behind Norway but only 23.5 seconds off Finland and Sweden.
“I knew that if I could catch Sweden, it would really help Jessie out,” said Stephen, 30, who was competing in her fifth world championship relay.
But by the time Stephen tagged Jessie Diggins for the anchor leg (also in the freestyle technique), she had only closed the gap to 21.5 seconds on the duo ahead.
One of the fastest 5-kilometer freestyle skiers in the world, 25-year-old Diggins never gave up hope on catching the skiers ahead of her.
“I saw where we were coming in and said my only strategy is to go out as hard as I can and hope that they’re playing cat and mouse at the front, and if they’re trying to be strategic for the final sprint, then maybe I can catch them,” said Diggins, who already has two medals from this world championships. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work my way.”
But for the Americans, it was all about the team effort. They wore their lucky striped socks, and Diggins painted everyone’s cheeks with U-S-A and the American flag.
“We went out there, and we said we’re going to ski as hard as we can and for each other, and that’s really powerful when you know you’re doing it for your teammates who you really care about and you really want them to do well,” she said.
And they are confident that the team momentum will carry them to the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
“This relay, it was awesome, I think everyone skied the best they could today,” said Bjornsen. “We’re always aiming for a medal, but we’re going to get it at the Olympics when it counts.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.