Deconstructing an Olympics sprint race: How, why did Kikkan Randall lose?
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — After Tuesday's catastrophic race at the Olympics, Kikkan Randall and her teammates and coaches were left to explain what seemed inexplicable: just how and why the Alaskan had been knocked out of the sprint rounds in her chosen discipline earlier than she had been in nearly two years of racing.
Deconstructing a sprint race is kind of like explaining the movements of a flock of sparrows — if the sparrows all came from different countries and were flying around a treacherous obstacle course, trying to get to the same worm first.
But that didn't stop Erik Flora, Randall's coach, from trying. And his perspective, informed by Randall's own comments, helps shed some light on Tuesday's bafflingly disappointing outcome — which in Flora's mind may have stemmed from Randall struggling with her fitness, or the conditions on the course, or a strategy that the pair thought through but simply didn't work.
"It can be so many things," Flora said in an interview after the race. "I'll go back and review this and see — I'm sure it'll play over and over in our heads."
Randall couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday, but in an email she said that it had been "an emotional roller coaster since yesterday afternoon."
"It's been an incredible influx of support messages today," she added, "and I am just blown away with how much everyone cares."
Her sprint race on Tuesday essentially boiled down to two key sections: a downhill coming off the top of the course, which was followed by a sharp corner leading into a long flat section in a stadium, ending with the homestretch.
Randall led into the corner, but then three of the five other women in her heat came past on the flat.
By her own measure, her typical finishing speed had gone missing.
"Today, that final gear wasn't quite there," she said.
Speaking with reporters after the race, Randall didn't do much speculating as to why. Pondering the question after the race, Flora said there could be several explanations for Randall's missing sharpness, from some undiagnosed problem with her preparation, to the conditions on Tuesday's course — soft snow that left the sprint race a slog — to the pressure.
"From what we've seen in training, she had good fitness," Flora said. But, he added, "When she went to make the move in the finish, she didn't feel like she had everything she needed, and that can be a lot of things."
The snow certainly was sloppy, which could have made it more difficult for Randall to ski with her usual power. But Flora downplayed that possibility, pointing out that his Alaska Pacific University team trains on the Eagle Glacier outside Anchorage during the summer, which can get similarly messy.
"I don't think the conditions threw her a big loop," he said. "She looked great coming into the stadium."
The decisive moment in Randall's sprint may actually have come before the homestretch, when she took the lead as the women headed into the descent and around the tight corner.
That move was one that was considered ahead of time, Flora said. Because of the risk of a crash on the turn, which took out two of the first seven women to start in the qualification round, Randall had intended to be at or near the front through the tricky section.
There's a problem with leading out a ski race, though: By positioning herself at the front of the group, Randall was absorbing the wind resistance, letting the skiers behind her draft and build up speed.
That allowed Germany's Denise Herrman to rush past once the women reached the flat stretch, along with Norway's Marit Bjoergen, and ultimately, before the finish, Italy's Gaia Vuerich.
A similar outcome befell Randall at her last sprint race, in Italy this month, when she also led through the middle of the course and was passed in a fast section leading toward the finish.
Tuesday's course was different, though — the snow was slower, and the speeds not as high, which should have diminished the advantage for the women that were waiting behind Randall on the descent.
The speed those women gathered surprised Flora, he said.
"We thought it was good odds to play it safe, and who would have known the draft effect was that strong in the stadium?" he said. "Going through the race today, would we have taken a different tactic? I can't say yes. I think we ran the right tactic."
Typically, Randall told reporters, she can fend off other women if they're coming from behind.
"Usually that works for me," she said.
But not on Tuesday, when she appeared to be lacking her usual quickness and was trying to respond to charges by two of the strongest sprinters on the circuit, Bjoergen and Herman.
One last question was about the pressure — whether the expectations of media and fans somehow got to Randall.
Flora acknowledged that pressure existed.
"But as far as I could tell, Kikkan was handling it well," he said. "We were focusing on the process of being here and getting ready for the races. She looked like she was in a good place. I didn't see anything to suggest that her preparation was disrupted."
In the end, Flora said, "it just didn't work out."
As for the soft snow, Flora didn't consider that a big factor.
"Certainly the conditions always come into the results. We do a lot of training on glacier in the summertime, which has very similar conditions. Yeah, very similar, deep, and maybe a little bit squirrelly. I don't think the conditions threw her a big loop. She looked great coming into the stadium. I think that just the ladies coming in behind her had a little more momentum coming into the finish. Watching today it looked like Kikkan was skiing well and like she was handling the conditions too."
Ultimately, even for the best in the sport, it's common for things not to work out in sprints — a race that at two and a half minutes is so short that what seems like random chance can just as often determine an outcome as fitness, technique or strategy.
It's a testament to Randall's unprecedented consistency in the discipline — leading into the Olympics, she had made the podium in 10 of her last 12 races in her favored skate technique — that Tuesday's result was considered so much of a disappointment.
Just look at what happened in the men's sprint, Flora said: Sweden's Emil Joensson, suffering from fatigue and a back injury, had given up and was trailing the lead pack in the final by a huge margin.
Then, three of Joensson's competitors crashed on a downhill corner.
"He wasn't even racing," Flora said. "And he ended up with a bronze medal today. How crazy."
At the end of the day, two others offered their own interpretations the race — both of whom should know.
One was Bjoergen, the Norwegian who had been expected to be Randall's big rival in the sprint. Instead of waltzing to victory after Randall's exit, Bjoergen crashed face first into the snow on the homestretch of her semifinal heat.
Afterward, bantering with the head coach of the Canadian ski team, she summed up the race: "S--- happens."
The other to give his thoughts was that coach: Justin Wadsworth, a former Olympic competitor who used to coach the U.S. team, including in 2007, when Randall won her first-ever World Cup race.
"She should not hang her head at all. The Olympics is a weird deal. That's why Olympic medals are so precious: They're really hard to get," he said in an interview. "It's hard, man. It's a hard thing to time right and put it all together."
Chelsea Little contributed reporting. Anchorage Daily News reporter Nathaniel Herz is reporting from Sochi for the Daily News and FasterSkier.com.