LAHTI, Finland (Mar. 2, 2017) – In an event that has become a focal point at World Championships, the USA finished fourth Thursday in the women’s 4x5k relay. Norway took its fourth straight gold in the event with Sweden taking silver and Finland bronze.
Montpelier’s Liz Stephen, skiing the third leg, helped the team move up and take fourth.” I was working off the energy of the other girls that went before me. I was really inspired by both of them—and especially by Sadie just going for it right off the bat. She just closed so much. I think we all went and did what we could today. Some days it’s going to go perfectly and some days it isn’t. I think today went as perfectly as it could go for us. We’ve been trying to get this medal in the last three championships and I know it’s coming,” Stephen said.
For the American women, it was a day of intense pride mixed with disappointment. It was the third straight world championships in which the USA was fourth. What was different this time was that the Americans came in feared as a medal contender by most all of the traditional major nations in the sport.
“We didn’t come here to finish fourth, we came here to win,” said Jessie Diggins (Afton, MN). “But we worked so hard and I’m really proud of my team today.
Going into the race, Norway was a heavy favorite with a lineup stacked with medalists. Sweden and home country Finland were expected to battle for the medals alongside the Americans, with Germany and Russia also anticipated to be in the hunt.
On the opening leg, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk set a strong classic pace to take an early lead before Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla moved out to a seven-second lead over Poland, Sweden and Finland. Kikkan Randall (Anchorage) skied the opening leg, 25 seconds back from the lead and 16 seconds from the medals.
“I knew the pace was going to be really fast on the first of two laps today and sure it enough, it was,” said Randall. “I felt pretty good. I think the skis were really fast today and just tried to keep it close.”
Sadie Bjornsen (Winthrop, WA) took the reigns on the second classic leg. Kerttu Niskanen, energized by her brother’s gold a day earlier in the 15k classic, moved Finland into the lead with Norway second and Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla dropping 11.7 seconds back. Bjornsen moved the USA into fourth, 36.2 seconds off the lead and 24 seconds from the medals pack.
“I definitely took it out hot there to chase those girls as quick as I could,” said Bjornsen, who won bronze in the classic team sprint with Diggins. “It was slightly intimidating because it’s some of the better classic skiers in the world, but I tried to not think about that and just kept my eyes on the prize. As we came through the hills, I would see them in short sections and then they would disappear but I tried to just keep fighting for every single section.”
On the first skating leg, Norway’s Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen charged out to dramatically extend the lead with a 56.7-second margin. Sweden and Finland joined forces, skiing together and exchanging the lead back and forth for the silver and bronze medals. Liz Stephen (E. Montpelier, VT) took the leg for the USA, dropping the margin to medals to 22 seconds.
On the anchor leg, Diggins took on the task of closing the gap skiing aggressively out of the start, charging up the hills and slicing precious seconds off the lead. But in the end, the gap was too much to close.
“We’re really proud of these girls—not just for the result, but for the way they executed the plan today,” said Coach Matt Whitcomb. “It’s not a given to be on the podium. It’s not something that just happens. Everybody shared the success of being fourth and a little piece of not being in contact on our final leg.”
With Finland and Sweden battling together, but also sharing the draft, it was clear on the final lap how important it was to be in contact with the medals group. “What we know, and what we’ll take away from this, is that we absolutely must maintain contact with our leaders, said Whitcomb. “If we do, at that point, we can launch a medal assault.”
The girls kept it positive, still excited to be in fourth place, and look towards medal opportunities at PyeongChang and the next World Championships in Seefeld, Austria. “To be honest, I feel like I’ve won gold just by being on this team,” said Stephen. “I have the best teammates I could possibly imagine. Whether I finish my career with a medal from this event to share with these girls or not, I have the one that I care about: the friendships and amazing support I’ve received and given from this team.”
The men’s relay 4x10k relay is set for Friday. The championships close this weekend with the women’s 30k freestyle Saturday and men’s 50k freestyle Sunday.
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