Kikkan Randall leads cross-country skiing season storylines

Kikkan Randall
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In 2002, Kikkan Randall, 19, debuted at the Salt Lake City Olympics and finished 60th.

Later at the Games, she watched Sarah Hughes, 16, place 59 spots higher in figure skating. Randall felt sorry for Hughes. Here’s why:

“[Hughes] had reached the pinnacle of her sport so early and knowing that I would have 10 years or more to look forward to doing that,” Randall recalled one year ago, according to USA Today.

She just about proved prophetic.

“My goal is to medal in 2010,” Randall told the newspaper in 2002. “In this sport, you cannot have quick success. You’ve got to put in the time, and you usually peak when you are close to 30.”

Randall, an Alaskan who won a high school bodybuilding contest, did not win a medal at her third Olympics in 2010. She and Caitlin Compton took sixth in the team sprint.

It marked the best finish by U.S. women’s cross-country skiers in Olympic history, but Bill Koch remained the only American to win an Olympic medal in the sport (1976 silver).

Randall will turn 31 on New Year’s Eve. She seems to be peaking, and she is predicted to win a medal in Sochi following consistent World Cup and breakthrough World Championships success.

“I remember being at my first Olympics at Salt Lake … and dreaming about the skier I wanted to become to eventually compete for the first-ever Olympic medal in women’s cross-country skiing,” she said in October. “It really feels like the blink of an eye.”

Randall spent the last decade ascending in sprint skiing. She’s the two-time reigning World Cup leader in the discipline, clinching last season’s title by edging Norwegian all-around superstar Marit Bjoergen by .07 of a second in her 100th career World Cup start.

She teamed with Jessie Diggins to make history at the World Championships in February, winning the team sprint and the first world title by American cross-country skiers, men or women.

Randall also won a 2009 World Championships silver medal, individually, but the recent surge in U.S. depth means she (and all of U.S. cross-country skiing) have more chances at breaking the Olympic medal drought.

“We’re in contention [in relays] for the first time in my Games experience,” Randall told the International Ski Federation (FIS).

This season’s World Cup results will be an early indicator of potential Sochi success. Watch for Randall’s individual performances against Olympic champions Bjoergen and Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk and Norwegian Maiken Caspersen Falla.

Sweden, Finland and Norway are the top competition in the team sprint.

Here’s this season’s cross-country skiing World Cup/Olympic schedule:

Kuusamo, Finland — Nov. 29-Dec. 1
Lillehammer, Norway — Dec. 7-8
Davos, Switzerland — Dec. 14-15
Asiago, Italy — Dec. 21-22
Oberhof, Germany — Dec. 28-29 (Tour de Ski)
Lenzerheide, Switzerland — Dec. 31-Jan. 1 (Tour de Ski)
Cortina-Toblach, Italy — Jan. 3 (Tour de Ski)
Val di Fiemme, Italy — Jan. 4-5 (Tour de Ski)
Nove Mesto, Czech Republic — Jan. 11-12
Szklarska Poreba, Poland — Jan. 18-19
Toblach, Italy — Feb. 1-2
Olympics — Feb. 8-23
Lahti, Finland — March 1-2
Drammen, Norway — March 6
Oslo, Norway — March 8-9
Falun, Sweden — March 14-16 (World Cup Final)

2. Who will make the U.S. Olympic Team?

The U.S. will base its Olympic Team selections off World Cup results and FIS Points standings through the Nove Mesto World Cup stop.

Currently, it is one of eight nations to qualify the maximum quota of 20 Olympians, a sign of progress after the U.S. sent 11 cross-country skiers to the 2010 Olympics.

The quota standings will change over the next two months, and the U.S. won’t necessarily fill every quota spot it receives.

A nation may have no more than 12 Olympians for one gender and four skiers per Olympic event.

The top U.S. women’s cross-country skiers last season were Randall (third in the overall World Cup), Liz Stephen (20th overall), Holly Brooks (35th), Diggins (36th) and Ida Sargent (39th).

The top men last season were Andy Newell (29th overall, fifth sprint), Noah Hoffman (48th overall), Kris Freeman (75th) and Simi Hamilton (91st).

All but Diggins, Sargent and Hoffman were on the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team.

3. Norway’s domination

No nation owns more Olympic cross-country skiing medals than Norway, which has 96 and will likely win its 100th Olympic cross-country medal come February.

The world’s best male and female skiers are both Norwegian — Bjoergen and Petter Northug.

Bjoergen, 33, won three gold medals at the 2010 Olympics. She finished fourth in the 2012-13 World Cup overall standings despite missing the entire Tour de Ski after being hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat. She came back to win four golds and one silver at the World Championships.

Bjoergen is three career Olympic medals behind the most decorated female Winter Olympian of all time, retired Soviet cross-country skier Raisa Smetanina, who won 10.

Northug, 27, is the reigning Olympic and world champion in the grueling 50km and the reigning World Cup overall champion. One of his biggest rivals, Swiss Dario Cologna, could miss the rest of 2013 recovering from ankle surgery.

Still, there is concern about Northug. His best finish in three events in a pre-World Cup stop in Norway last week was 10th, and he took 63rd in one race.

Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess a unique U.S. Olympic hopeful

Kendall Gretsch wins six gold medals at Para Nordic Ski Worlds

Kendall Gretsch
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Kendall Gretsch, who won Paralympic titles at the last Summer and Winter Games, added another six gold medals at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Sweden last week.

Gretsch, 30, earned seven total medals in seven days between biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Gretsch won gold medals in three different sports across the last three Paralympics: biathlon and cross-country skiing in 2018 (two years after taking up the sports), triathlon in 2021 and biathlon in 2022.

She plans to shift her focus back to triathlon after this winter for 2024 Paris Games qualification.

Gretsch, born with spina bifida, was the 2014 USA Triathlon Female Para Triathlete of the Year. Though triathlon was added to the Paralympics for the 2016 Rio Games, her classification was not added until Tokyo.

Also at last week’s worlds, six-time Paralympian Aaron Pike earned his first Paralympic or world championships gold medal in his decade-plus career, winning a 12.5km biathlon event.

Oksana Masters, who won seven medals in seven events at last year’s Paralympics to break the career U.S. Winter Paralympics medals record, missed worlds due to hand surgery.

The U.S. also picked up five medals at last week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Spain — three silvers for five-time Paralympian Laurie Stephens and two bronzes for 17-year-old Saylor O’Brien.

Stephens now has 18 career medals from world championships, plus seven at the Paralympics.

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World champion skier Kyle Smaine dies in avalanche at age 31

Kyle Smaine
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Kyle Smaine, a retired world champion halfpipe skier, died in an avalanche in Japan on Sunday, according to NBC News, citing Smaine’s father. He was 31.

Smaine, a 2015 World champion in ski halfpipe, had been doing ski filming in Japan, sharing videos on his Instagram account over the past week.

The native of South Lake Tahoe, California, finished ninth in ski halfpipe at the 2016 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado.

In 2018, Smaine won the fifth and final U.S. Olympic qualifying series event in ski halfpipe but did not make the four-man team for PyeongChang. His last sanctioned international competition was in February 2018.

Late Sunday, two-time Olympic champion David Wise won the X Games men’s ski halfpipe and dedicated it to Smaine.

“We all did this for Kyle tonight,” Wise said on the broadcast. “It’s a little bit of an emotional day for us. We lost a friend.”