SOCHI, RUSSIA – In years past, coaches from other nations didn’t pay much attention to American women in cross-country skiing. The U.S. was a complete non-entity in international competition, with no Olympic medals, no individual titles at the world championships and little success on the World Cup tour.
That all changed last season, through the will of one tenacious woman — four-time Olympian Kikkan Randall — and a band of skiers who decided this individual sport could use a good dose of team spirit. Randall, 31, is among the favorites to win the women’s freestyle sprint Tuesday at the Sochi Games, which would be the first Olympic gold medal won by a U.S. cross-country skier. A medal of any color, in any event, would be the first for the American women in the 62 years that women’s cross-country has been part of the Winter Games.
Bill Koch’s silver medal at the 30-kilometer distance in 1976 remains the only Olympic medal the U.S. has won. This time around, the American women enter the Games with a pair of world champions on the roster — Randall and Afton’s Jessie Diggins, who won the team sprint at the worlds last spring — and a number of historic milestones achieved. Randall and Diggins won the Americans’ first-ever World Cup gold in the team sprint last season, and they have helped the U.S. win two bronze medals in the 4x5-kilometer relay, the country’s best World Cup finish ever in that event.
The U.S. has improved so drastically that other nations want to know the reasons behind its success. Diggins said there are no bombshells. The simple explanation is that the American women have put their friendships first, which has made all the difference.
“The French coach came over to our camp this year to see the secrets,’’ said Diggins, who also is expected to compete in the freestyle sprint. “And the secret was, we don’t have one. We’re just really open. We share our training with our teammates, and we just support each other.
“Every girl on the team has bought into that idea. We’re going to support each other, we’re going to be there for each other, and that’s how we’re going to try to rise from being the underdogs in this sport dominated by Europeans. It’s the confidence, and the belief that it’s possible, that has changed for us.’’
U.S. coach Chris Grover said this is the Americans’ strongest team in modern history and perhaps their strongest ever. Randall has set the tone with her aggressive training regimen, positive nature and willingness to freely share her knowledge.
Liz Stephen, another of the seven women on the U.S. team in Sochi, called Randall a “force of nature’’ whose impact on the team has been immeasurable. In 2007, the Alaskan became the first American woman to win a World Cup medal; since then, she has won 10 golds on the circuit. Randall has become a rock star to young women in the sport, showing them what is possible while helping them learn how to get there.
Diggins has played a role, too. She initiated a pre-race ritual of applying glitter to everyone’s faces; the team also uses face paint and wears striped socks to retain a sense of fun in an exhausting, painful sport.
The group has become so close, Stephen said, that they sometimes forget cross-country is an individual pursuit. “Every step we take is a big step, because it maybe has never been taken, and people aren’t expecting it,’’ she said. “We’ve talked about trying to create a team atmosphere and leave a legacy behind us that is more than just results. It is treating each other like a family, and that has really helped our success.’’
Diggins and Stephens opened the Olympics on a positive note, finishing eighth and 12th in the women’s 15K skiathlon. Diggins said the pressure has risen along with the expectations, particularly with the world watching in an Olympic year.
She isn’t complaining. “We are very excited for the chance to make history,’’ Diggins said. “It’s been a long time since we had a medal, and I think it’s time to change that.’’