Zaccardi: USA women's cross-country ready to rise from rock bottom

NBC - PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Kikkan Randall remembers rock bottom.

It came in the 4x5km relay at the 2005 World Nordic Ski Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany, detailed in "World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women's Cross-Country Ski Team."

The U.S. was in last place of 15 nations after the first leg, nearly three minutes behind the leaders. The team's second leg, skiing with a reported respiratory infection, wasn't much faster.

Randall never got the tag to ski her anchor leg.

"We were pulled out of the race because we were about to be lapped," Randall said last year.

The U.S. women's cross-country team, after a decade-long climb from an international afterthought, will ski for its first Olympic medal Saturday in the 4x5km relay. If they don't get it there, another chance in the two-woman team sprint comes four days later.

Americans had outside medal hopes in the first three individual events here this week – the 15km skiathlon, the classic sprint and the 10km freestyle – and recorded decent finishes.

Jessie Diggins had two fifths and a sixth, missing a medal in Thursday's 10km freestyle by 3.3 seconds.

She split three seconds faster than joint bronze medalist Marit Bjorgen at 9.3 kilometers, but Diggins "completely locked up" on a climb in the last half-mile.

"To have three top-six finishes at the Games in totally different events is like a dream come true," Diggins said, waving off questions in multiple interviews that she could have been disappointed with just missing that elusive first medal.

More is expected of Diggins, who races with gold glitter on her cheeks and is sponsored by Minnesota's Slumberland Furniture, and the American women in their next two events – the relay and the team sprint.

Namely, the second U.S. Olympic cross-country medal ever after Bill Koch's 30km silver in 1976.

The Associated Press, Sports Illustrated and Gracenote all projected the same order of finish in the relay before the Games – Norway (gold), Sweden (silver) and Finland (bronze).

Norway, Sweden and Finland – three countries with a combined 270 Olympic cross-country medals – finished in that order in the relay at the world championships in 2015 and 2017.

The U.S. women, with a recent influx of young talent to join the five-time Olympian Randall, finished fourth in the relay at worlds in 2013, 2015 and 2017.

"The relays are, for me personally, I've been looking forward to the most at these Olympics and really the last four years," said Randall, a 35-year-old mom from Alaska. "We're getting stronger as we go."

The AP, SI and Gracenote all picked the U.S. for gold or silver in the team sprint.

Randall, once the U.S.'s only cross-country skier on the top international level, has seen the program blossom so much that she's not assured of a spot on either the relay or the team sprint here.

After being plucked off the course at 2005 Worlds, the U.S. Ski Team decided to name zero women to its national team for the 2005-06 season, devoting the funding to the men.

The message sent was, "we only feel like the men have potential to win medals," Randall said.

Randall continued to compete. She trailblazed.

February 2006: First U.S. woman to finish in the top 10 at the Olympics.

January 2007: First U.S. woman on a World Cup podium.

December 2007: First U.S. woman to win a World Cup.

At the 2010 Olympics, Randall led off the relay and handed off in fourth place. The U.S. dropped to 12th on the second leg and finished 11th.

We need three more skiers, Randall thought.

Diggins debuted at worlds in 2011 at age 19, one month after placing seventh in an individual event at junior worlds. The relay, with Randall leading off and Diggins anchoring, was ninth. Cracking the top 10 was a milestone.

"You could see that young group that we had at those championships was really, like, showing some potential," Randall said.

In 2012, the women were fifth in a World Cup relay without an ill Randall. The next season, they reached the podium for the first time.

"What I've seen through my individual career is that you've got to get the experience," Randall said. "Then you've got to get World Cup success."

Going into Sochi, Randall was the only U.S. woman with an individual World Cup podium to her name. Since Sochi, five more women joined her – Diggins, Sadie Bjornsen, Sophie Caldwell, Ida Sargent and Liz Stephen.

"We have eight girls that can be on that relay team," Randall said. "We don't have to have our four best have their perfect day. We have people we can swap in and out. We still know that all of us have to have our best day to be in the medals."

Here, the U.S. and Norway were the only two nations to put three women in the top 16 of both the sprint and the 10km freestyle.

"There are more things than just a medal," Diggins tempered. "I think it's important to not put other people's expectations on myself."

Then Diggins countered.

"It's the best women's team in history, that we've ever had at the Games," she said.

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