It was supposed to be a historic Olympic Games for Kikkan Randall and the rest of the U.S. women's cross-country team. Instead, it has just been business as usual.
After their disappointing finish in the cross-country 4x5-kilometer relay on Saturday, the U.S. women have still never won an Olympic cross-country medal, and no U.S. athlete has won any Olympic medal in cross country since 1976.
Randall, the two-time World Cup sprint champion and the reason for Team USA's high hopes and expectations, skied the first lap of the relay. The 31-year-old was supposed to get her teammates off to a strong start and instill hope that they could hold on for a medal.
It didn't work out that way.
Randall started the race well, in third place for the majority of the lap. But she faded badly at the end. When she tagged her teammate, Sadie Bjornsen, she was in 12th place, 39.7 seconds behind the leader—an eternity in cross country.
Team USA ended the relay ninth, well below where they hoped and expected to be.
Still, the reason that anyone is even talking about the U.S. women's cross-country team in Sochi is because of Randall.
The pink-haired veteran of the sport has been the most successful American woman in the history of cross country, and this Olympic Games was supposed to be her crowning jewel.
Randall was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, but moved to Alaska when she was a child. The niece of two cross-country Olympians, she picked up the sport early and was a natural. At just 18, she made her very first Olympic team.
But it wasn't until recently that Randall transitioned from one of the best cross-country skiers in the U.S. to one of the best in the world. She won a silver medal at the World Championships in sprint in 2009, was in sixth place in the Vancouver Games and then developed into a consistent World Cup threat in the last four years.
She did everything she could to get ready for the Sochi Games, the ones that were supposed to put cross-country skiing on the map in America.
Steve Politi of the Star-Ledger reported on the lengths Randall and her team went through to prepare for these Games:
Randall and her coaches skied the 1.5-kilometer course in the mountains above Sochi with a GPS tracking device. Then they used the information—and a snow-moving device—to build a replica of the course on a glacier so she could train.
They literally built a mountain.
So far, it hasn't paid off.
The biggest event for Randall was last Tuesday, the individual sprint. She's won the World Cup title in this event the last two years and was considered by many to be the gold-medal favorite.
At long last, the U.S. was to win a cross-country gold medal.
Instead, she failed to even make it out of her quarterfinal heat. The failure unfolded in devastating fashion—Randall was leading at the start, in second place at the big turn and then five-hundredths of a second away from making it to the semifinal at the finish line.
Just like in the relay on Saturday, she faded when it counted most. Perhaps she was drained by the spotlight, the expectations or just the brutality of her sport.
"You try your whole life for something like this and it's over in two-and-a-half minutes," she told reporters afterward, via USA Today's Erik Brady.
Still, through it all, Randall has been a beacon of the Olympic spirit. She's cheered on her teammates, handled the press obligations and continued to look forward.
Her Instagram caption after her disappointing finish in the individual sprint read: "Really proud to represent the stars and stripes today. Didn't get a chance to fight for the medals but gave it everything. Now looking ahead to relays!"
It's not the Olympics she had dreamed of for so long, but it's the one she's having, and she's making the best of it.
That's the brutal thing about sports. Sometimes you can do everything right—you can put in the hard years, win the lead-up races, build the mountain—and still it's not enough.
Sometimes it's just not your day, your event or your moment to shine.
There's one final chance for the women to get a historic cross-country medal at these Games, and that's in the sprint relay. At the 2013 World Championships, Randall and teammate Jessica Diggins won the gold in this event.
The 22-year-old Diggins grew up idolizing Randall, and should she be nominated for the sprint relay, she will surely be motivated to help the woman they call "Kikkanimal" finally make it to the Olympic podium.
Randall has inspired a new generation of cross-country skiers and put her team into the spotlight here in Sochi thanks to her hard work and success.
America is watching, waiting and hoping that Randall can see her Olympic dream come true.
Unlike previous years, Randall and the cross-country team are a story at these Games. So far, they're just not the story they had hoped to be.
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