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WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK — Kikkan Randall and Holly Brooks both considered skipping the final women’s cross country ski race of these Winter Olympics, Saturday’s 30-kilometer classic.
Afterward, both were glad they went for it, as Randall — known primarily for her sprinting — placed a solid 24th of 53 starters and Brooks gutted out 36th place.
“I flip-flopped a lot during the week since I hit my goals in the sprint and team sprint. I could have easily stopped and said ‘Hey, that was a great Olympics,’” Anchorage’s Randall said. “At the same time, I knew I was in good shape and I’d never raced a 30K at a major championship.”
After four races at her first Olympics, Brooks was exhausted and not sure if she was up for racing one more time.
“I’m really happy that I did it. Yesterday I wasn’t going to, and then kind of at the last minute I added myself to the start list,” said Brooks, also from Anchorage.
What swayed the coach and athlete of the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center?
“This is the Olympics. I was so excited for this and I almost felt that I had an obligation,” Brooks said. “I kind of thought about all the people that would probably kill to be in my position.”
And Brooks also thought of all the support she’s gotten from family and friends.
“I probably have like 40 people out here today cheering for me,” she said.
Almost 4,000 spectators — the smart ones with umbrellas — braved a steady rain that fell for about two-thirds of the six-lap race. The weather seemed more of an issue for the fans than the racers, however.
“Once you got going, you really didn’t even think about it,” Randall said. “The rain is probably a little easier than if it had turned to snow.”
Because of the weather, most skiers took advantage of a rule that allowed them to change skis up to three times to improve their kick or glide. Randall opted to stay with klister-waxed boards, while Brooks switched to scuffed waxless skis that were faster but more challenging to stride with.
Brooks, who was concerned that Saturday’s race could be a “potential disaster,” was 46th after 7 kilometers but improved throughout to place a satisfactory 36th in 1 hour, 38 minutes and 14 seconds. She finished less exhausted than after a race of half that distance at last month’s U.S. Nationals in Anchorage, when she hung with Randall until the final kilometer.
“I wish I had 10 more (kilometers), but I really can’t complain,” Brooks said.
Randall was 21st at the midpoint and her triceps started cramping on the last lap, but she hung on for 24th by outlunging Poland’s Sylwia Jaskowiec at the line in 1:34:59.
“30K is still a little mentally intimidating for me, but I had a fun race today,” the 27-year-old Randall said.
This was Randall’s most successful of three Olympics, and she’ll still be in her prime for the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. At those Olympics, Randall will get to race her best event, the freestyle sprint, but she said longer distances also are becoming important for her.
“My goal is to become an all-arounder,” Randall said. “In four years, I’d love to become competitive at every distance, so I think this experience (Saturday) is really going to help me do that.”
Justyna Kowalcyzk’s goal was to win her first gold medal, and she and Norway’s Marit Bjoergen waged an epic duel that wasn’t decided until the final meters.
Kowalcyzk, of Poland, had won bronze and silver at these games, but Bjoergen has been on fire with four medals, including three golds.
It looked briefly like Bjoergen was setting up for a fourth gold when she attacked at about 22K and opened a six-second lead. But Kowalczyk closed that margin, then later led the final uphill and entered the stadium with Bjoergen on her skis’ tips.
Kowalczyk double-poled furiously to the finish — she said she didn’t remember the last 200 meters — and got there in 1:30:33.7. Bjoergen was three-tenths of a second behind but nevertheless became the ninth Winter Olympian to win five medals at a single games.
Said Bjoergen: “Today she was faster than me and I thought that to get the gold I had to be first in the stadium.”
Kowalczyk saved her energy for when it counted most. “My tactic before the race was being very relaxed for 20K and then fighting,” she said.
Today’s men’s 50K classic, featuring Anchorage’s James Southam, will be the last cross-country race of the Olympics. It joins the men’s hockey gold-medal showdown between the U.S. and Canada and the closing ceremonies as the games’ final events.
Contact staff writer Matias Saari at email@example.com.