KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUSSIA – Kikkan Randall held the lead in the freestyle sprint with the final stretch just around a bend. She needed only a top-two finish to guarantee a spot in the semifinals of an Olympic cross-country ski race that many expected her to medal in, possibly even return home with gold.
Randall's lead began to dwindle with the finish line in sight. A trio of competitors breathing down her neck closed the gap as Randall labored, her energy apparently on empty.
One racer passed her. Then another. And another.
Randall, 31, the decorated American racer and ardent ambassador of the U.S. women's cross-country program, finished without a medal.
"It's tough," Randall said after the women's sprint, her eyes filled with tears. "That's the sport, right? You prepare your whole life for something like this and it's over in 2½ minutes."
This was not the outcome the United States had planned. The women's cross-country team entered these Olympics with unprecedented buzz and optimism. Armed with the strongest and deepest lineup in team history, the American women arrived in Sochi with a realistic expectation that they would win their first medal in cross-country ever.
But as they learned again Tuesday, that maiden medal won't just be handed to them. The Americans bubbled with excitement after advancing all four of their racers, including Afton's Jessie Diggins, to the quarterfinals in the sprint free competition. That in itself marked progress.
"That says a lot about where our country is coming from and where we're headed," Diggins said. "A few years ago we would have maybe gotten one person in."
The good vibes didn't last for long. Diggins, Randall and Ida Sargent all failed to make it out of the quarterfinals. Sophie Caldwell reached the final, but she finished a distant sixth. Diggins finished 13th, Randall 18th and Sargent 19th.
The performance left team members dejected, mostly because of what that race meant to Randall, a four-time Olympian who represents the face of the Americans' progress in a sport dominated by the Norwegians.
"My heart broke a little bit," Diggins said. "Of course I want to race well for me, but mostly I was hoping the best for her. I was hoping that she would be able to fulfill her dreams."
Randall has made it her crusade to grow women's cross-country domestically, both in participation numbers and international success. The U.S. team has chipped away at that brick wall in recent years, winning at levels once thought impossible. The last frontier, of course, is the Olympics and proving that they can win medals and compete with the Norwegians.
"That's been one of the coolest parts about this run into Sochi," Randall said. "For the first time we've been in medal contention in almost four decades. It's been incredible attention for the sport. We've already accomplished so much."
One thing, one very big thing, remains elusive. Randall desperately wanted that medal in the sprint free, which would have provided a tangible sign that the Americans have arrived. Randall admitted afterward that she's "been thinking about this race for a long time."
It was right there for her to take. She had it in her grasp, at least a chance to advance and show that this was her time, the Americans' time, to join the big leagues. And then she ran out of steam.
"That final gear just wasn't there," she said. "Unfortunately, I fell apart right before the finish and didn't get a good lunge in. I'm sure I'll be reliving those moments hundreds of times in my head."
Randall huddled with her family afterward. Asked what they told her, she said, "I think everyone is kind of speechless."
The good news is that Randall and her teammates still have more chances to earn a medal. The Americans could contend in relay events later this week, including the 4x5K relay, which is an event that Diggins has talked about anxiously since arriving in Sochi.
"I've been so excited about this chance to really show the world how strong we are as a team and the depth that we have because I think that it's there," she said. "I've been looking forward to this for a long time."
The opportunity is there for them. The Americans feel like they are right on the cusp of achieving something historic. Now, they just need to prove they can do it.