(L-R) Kikkan Randall hands over to Jessie Diggins in the women's 4x5 kilometer at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 17, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Twenty years ago, Kikkan Randall began cross-country ski racing with the goal of winning the first Olympic medal for U.S. women’s cross-country skiing.
In the women’s 4x5-kilometer at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, she came close.
Randall, along with Sophie Caldwell, Sadie Bjornsen and Jessie Diggins finished fifth in the relay, just 36.8 seconds from a medal.
It’s the best-ever relay finish for the American women at the Olympic Games.
Norway won its first Olympic relay gold medal in eight years, beating Sweden — the defending Olympic champion — by two seconds. The Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) team held on for the bronze medal.
“While we tend to be really focused on the medals, we know deep in our hearts it’s so possible,” said Randall, a five-time Olympian who is competing at her last Games. “I still think it was amazing to put together four strong legs today and to get that best ever result and keep the pathway going forward.”
In naming the relay team, the coaches picked four U.S. women who had been on a world cup podium in an individual event this season, with Caldwell and Diggins winning the final world cup races in January before the Olympic Games began.
“All four athletes are clearly in top shape, and we feel this team is our best chance to bring home a medal for the USA," said head coach Chris Grover on the eve of the Olympic relay.
Caldwell, who competed for Dartmouth College’s top-ranked NCAA ski team, and Bjornsen led off the relay in the classic legs. Bjornsen also competed on the NCAA circuit for a year before transferring to Alaska Pacific University so she could ski full-time.
But Caldwell fell victim to a Russian coup. The OAR team’s strategy was to set a fast pace during the classic legs of the relay to hold off America’s strong freestyle skiers, Randall and Diggins. (The 4x5K is two classic legs followed by two freestyle legs.)
Caldwell could not keep the pace set by OAR’s Natalia Nepryaeva, who finished fourth in the classic sprint earlier in the week. Yulia Belorukova, the classic sprint bronze medalist, also kept a hot pace.
“That is something we were hoping didn’t occur, and it doesn’t always,” said head women’s coach Matt Whitcomb.
In the freestyle legs, Randall and Diggins picked off skiers ahead.
“I got to see each of my teammates ski their heart out, and I was getting more and more fired up watching them,” said Diggins, who has anchored every relay since 2012. “I was like, hey, when it’s my turn, I’m going to reel in as many people as I can.”
Diggins closed the gap on third place. But it was not enough. She crossed the line in fifth.
While the four American women were disappointed, they were not crushed.
For this team, the journey to the PyeongChang Games has been about more than winning medals. It’s a tale of team, belief, spirit and soul. And if Olympic medals were given out for heart, the Americans would have topped the podium tonight.
“We’re going to walk away proud of what we did here today because there’s more to it than just medals,” said Diggins. “Seeing everyone go out there and lay down a solid race and give it everything they had, that’s what really matters.”
In the past six years, the U.S. women’s cross-country skiing team has become a force on the world cup circuit — not just in results but in spirit. They show up at relays decked out in striped socks, face paint and glitter, and have shown their competitors that they can compete with the best on the course, then be friends after the clock stops.
For years, Randall was the only American making it onto the podium. But as more women were named to the U.S. Ski Team, Whitcomb worked hard to build a strong team bond that would spur belief and confidence. And with belief and confidence, the individuals would hopefully flourish.
“As coaches, we spend a lot of time trying to tune people’s engines and make sure that they show up with a roaring Ferrari,” Whitcomb explained about the power of belief. “But the Ferrari needs a driver, and for the skier that’s the brain. The body will not go if the brain isn’t behind it.”
Of the six women currently on the A team, all have achieved world cup podium finishes in the past few years — and not just in sprints (long the domain of Randall). They have earned top-three finishes in every distance from sprints to skiathlons, which are 15 kilometers in length.
“Our team has more belief than we’ve ever had, and it’s just so motivating and exciting,” said Bjornsen. “We show up to every race so excited to see what we can do and get goosebumps just standing on the start line.”
In the Olympic relay, they believed they could medal. And they would show up at the start line, ski their best, and see if that happened.
“There’s nothing I enjoy more than trying to win and that’s what we did today,” said Whitcomb.“We worked really well as a team of athletes and staff, and at the end of the day, that’s what we got. We tried to win, and we can only be happy with that.”
They knew winning an Olympic medal would be tough in PyeongChang. They also missed out in the Sochi Games, where Randall was favored to win a medal in the freestyle sprint, and the team had already had a handful of relay podium finishes in world cup racing.
“When I left Sochi without a medal, I realized that while winning a medal is amazing and is certainly the most visible accomplishment in our sport, at least for the Americans, it’s not the only thing that defines us,” Randall said before the PyeongChang Games began. She is retiring at the end of the season and moving to British Columbia with her husband and son.
After the race, Randall reminded everyone that this is not the end.
“We had to leave something for the next generation to go after,” she said. “I mean, come on, this group, we’ve had a lot of firsts. But there’s a really awesome young group of girls coming up with junior world podiums in the relay.
“So I think there’s high hopes, and we can hopefully leave a good path for them.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games, PyeongChang is her fifth. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. Her new book, “World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team,” depicts the rise of the American women.