SOCHI, Russia -- Tuesday was supposed to be more than just a great day for Kikkan Randall, it was also to be a great day for American cross-country skiing, its best day in nearly four decades.
America has won only one Olympic medal in the sport, and that was 38 very long years ago when Bill Koch took the silver medal at the 1976 Innsbruck Games. That's nearly four decades of endless frustration, disappointment and losses by very large margins. The United States has been such an underdog in the sport that four-time Olympian Kris Freeman compares America beating cross-county powerhouse Norway to a Little League team beating the Yankees.
But Tuesday was going to be oh, so deliciously different.
Randall, the 31-year-old Alaskan skier with pink-streaked hair, won five World Cup races last year and won back-to-back World Cup races last month. She is a two-time world sprint champion. She said the Sochi course was favorable to her style. Everyone from Freeman to Sports Illustrated picked her to win gold in Tuesday's sprint free race.
Instead, Randall didn't even reach the semifinals.
She started off well in the fifth quarterfinal heat, taking the lead by skiing powerfully up the 1.3-kilometer course's hill. She held the lead as the athletes entered the course stadium and raced toward the finish line.
Then, Germany's Denise Herrmann passed her. (Because the top two skiers advance from the quarterfinals, Randall still was in good shape, though.)
But then Norway's Marit Bjoergen passed her.
Because the two skiers with the next two fastest times overall also advance, Randall's chances still were looking decent.
But then Italy's Gaia Vuerich passed her just before the finish line.
Randall still had a chance to advance as the second qualifier (aka, a "lucky loser") if her time had been fast enough, but it wasn't. After waiting many anxious seconds, she learned she had been too slow.
"That final gear wasn't quite there and then I fell apart there right before the finish and didn't get a lunge in," she said. "Seven-hundredths of a second is an incredibly close margin. [Official results indicated she was actually five-hundredths behind Vuerich.] I'm sure I'll be living those moments hundreds of time in my head."
After going through a lengthy interview session with TV rights-holders, Randall walked down the steps to the mixed zone to speak with reporters. Tears flowing down her cheeks, she leaned against a barrier and buried her head in her arms.
This was only natural, given that she carried the tremendous weight of her country's hopes for cross-country. Randall didn't just want a medal for herself, she wanted a medal to boost the sport throughout America. She wants more Americans out on the trail, learning how wonderful and fun her sport is while improving their health and fitness. She wants Americans to learn that cross-country is every bit as exciting as what Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller do in Alpine.
"It's rough, but that's sport, right?" Randall said of her disappointing day. "You prepare your whole life for something like this and it's over in 2½ minutes."
It's especially rough because of the cross-country system that alternates sprint styles every Olympics. One Olympics, the sprint will be raced classic style; the next it will be free style. The free sprint, Randall's specialty, will not be held again until the 2022 Olympics, when she is 39.
Randall still has a couple of Olympic events here, including the team sprint classic and the 4x10 relay, but this was her best event, her best chance. Randall and Minnesota's Jessie Diggins won the team sprint at the world championships last year, but that was a free sprint. It's a classic sprint at these Olympics, which lessens the chance for a U.S. medal, though it is still possible.
"I think there are a lot of ways to look at it," Diggins said. "One way is we're not burning as much energy. Some of us aren't going through all the runs and we'll have a little extra spark and a little fire. Once we have a few more kilometers to work with, we'll see what we can do."
Randall's performance was so crushing that Diggins was holding back tears talking about it. Still, the day wasn't a total disappointment for the United States. Four American women reached the quarterfinals and Sophie Caldwell made the finals for the highest finish in Olympic history by an American woman (Randall previously held the mark).
"I think that says a lot about where our country has come from and where we're headed," Diggins said. "Four years ago, we maybe would have gotten one skier into the heats, but now we're getting four girls in the heats."
Interestingly, Caldwell's parents are good friends with Koch and Sophie even has baby-sat his children. "He's an inspiration," Caldwell said.
Yes, but Koch's medal was 38 years ago. The sport could use another medal for inspiration.