KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – The women's 4x5km relay had been considered the one big chance for the U.S. cross country ski team to end a nearly four-decade Olympic medal drought. But those hopes disappeared in the race's first leg when 2013 world champion Kikkan Randall put her team in a hole from which it could not recover.
Randall completed the first of 2.5km loops in fourth place, but slowed considerably on the second loop. When she came to the start-finish area to tag teammate Sadie Bjornsen, the U.S. was in 12th position. That forced the rest of the team to chase, which it did, moving up to finish ninth overall, two and half minutes behind gold medal-winning Sweden.
"That was a tough one today," Randall said. "I went deep into the hurt box, but unfortunately I kept getting slower and slower at the end. It's not what I wanted to do today."
In spite of another disappointing result, the U.S. skiers and their coach Matt Whitcomb, said the race was a success because the team achieved its goals of staying positive and supporting each other.
"We're as strong as we've ever been," he said. "We just didn't ski fast enough today."
Bjornsen, 23, of Winthrop, Wash., said these types of results are just part of racing at the toughest event in all sports.
"We're at the highest level right now. We're at the Olympic Games. Everyone's at their top shape," she said. "A small fraction off is where we are today. I think we're completely capable of winning medals. We've done it before and I think we'll do it again.
"Today was maybe not our best day but that's totally part of it."
An all-out sprint to the finish line by Charlotte Kalla earned Sweden team the gold medal with a combined time of 53 minutes, 2.7 seconds. Kalla's burst pushed her past Krista Lahteenmaki of Finland, which took the silver. Last in that three-way sprint was Denis Herrmann of Germany, who clinched the bronze.
The relay consisted of the first two racers skiing classic technique legs, followed by two teammates skiing freestyle, or skating, laps.
Randall, 31, from Anchorage, Alaska, said the pace accelerated on the second loop and her body was flooded with lactic acid.
"I couldn't keep my tempo up," she said. "I'm kind of a loss as to why. I had a great workout on the course two days ago and felt really ready coming into today. I love the excitement of head-to-head racing. Just a real bummer when it's the first leg and you've got three teammates waiting for you.
"I really wanted to put us in a better position today. I have some work to do to figure out what's going on. Hopefully we can turn it around."
Bjornsen's classic leg was the seventh-fastest time of the day. She moved the team to ninth place when she came in and tagged Liz Stephen, 27, of East Montpelier, Vt., who skied the first freestyle leg. Stephen had the ninth-fastest time and tagged Jessie Diggins, 22, of Afton, Minn.
By then the team had moved up to seventh or eighth place and Diggins fought with Italian skier Ilaria Debertolis to hold that spot, Diggins said. But as she entered the stadium, Diggins skied down the lap lane instead of the finish lane and had to backtrack end her race.
Diggins said her wrong-lane mishap, which cost the team one place in the standings, was "a dumb mistake" but said she'll laugh about it tomorrow and look forward to the next challenge.
"We are going to go out there and give it everything we have, every time," she said. "That's how we ski relays. Sometimes that means we're in the hunt for medals and sometimes that means we're in the back of the pack.
"I'm really proud of how we've worked our best, we've prepared as well as we could, we pushed ourselves as hard as we could, we believed in each other and that's what matters."
Bjornsen said she embraced the challenge of trying to pull the team forward.
"Today I was sent out on the chase from the start, so that was fun, looking up the hill, seeing a person, trying to catch them and just know that every second I was picking away was a second more for those next girls," she said. "We all kept fighting today."
The team sported lucky relay socks as a sign of solidarity.
"It's not about the results for us," Steven said. "The relay socks are a mentality. You put them on and its relay day. It's about the team and you go out and you fight until you bleed. That's what we do every time we put them. They worked, they just weren't as fast as some times."
Whitcomb said the team went into the race with a focus.
"We talked last night about doing three things: one was to never say die, fight until the end," he said. "Another was 'believe in your teammates, believe in yourselves.' The third one was get your sparkle on, and the girls do that great."
The relay race was all about attitude, he said, "so when my eyes welled up at the end of the day, it was because we executed that. When we've nailed those three points, any result is going to be good for us.
"I'm confident and content with what went down today knowing we're not broken."
Martha Bellisle writes for the Reno Gazette-Journal.