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Armour: U.S. Cross Country Aims for Big Time at Winter Olympics

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Fellow U.S. Ski Team members Sadie Bjornsen (l) and Jessie Diggins (r) striding together during the 10 k classic mass start at Stage 5 of the Tour de Ski in Oberstdorf, Germany. Diggins went on to place 23rd and Bjornsen 26th in that race. Photo: Marcel Hilger, http://fasterskier.com

You know you’ve arrived in the cross country ski world when your team rolls up to events with its own wax truck.

With the faces of team members plastered on the side, no less.

It wasn’t even 20 years ago that the Americans barely had enough world-class athletes to field a team, and now they’re a budding cross-country powerhouse. The U.S. women are mainstays on the World Cup podium. Watching an American chase down a Norwegian or a Swede is no longer akin to seeing an alien.

But there’s one all-important measure of success still to achieve: an Olympic medal.

“Four years ago, when we showed up at the Olympics, I thought Kikkan (Randall) was going to win a medal. I was there to have an experience, but I didn’t believe I could be there myself,” Sadie Bjornsen said Wednesday. “Fast-forward four years, and I’m showing up believing I can win a medal. Jessie (Diggins) is showing up believing that. Kik is showing up believing that.

“Every person on the team feels that.”

The Americans actually do have an Olympic medal already, a bronze by Bill Koch back in 1976. But that might as well be ancient history.

The current team craves hardware of its own, similar to what it’s been collecting the last four years.

Diggins won the last World Cup race before the Winter Games, and is third in the overall standings. She won two medals at last year’s world championships, and teamed with Randall to become the first Americans to win a world title, the team sprint freestyle in 2013.

Bjornsen ranks seventh in the overall standings, having been on the podiums three times already this season. She teamed with Diggins for the bronze in the team sprint classic at last year’s worlds. Sophie Caldwell has made the podium twice this year in freestyle sprint, once with Ida Sargent.

Randall, the one who started the renaissance, was the first American woman to win a World Cup medal and then to win titles, both at the world championships and in the World Cup.

“Early on, we really were functioning off this little glimmer of belief, of it’s possible,” Randall said.

“To me, it’s a lot like when Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile. Nobody thought it was possible and then he did it and the records just started falling,” she said. “I’m not even going to take credit for breaking that door because Kris Freeman was fourth twice in the world championships, and Andy Newell got on the podium in China the year before I got my first podium.

“Now,” Randall said, “everybody’s showing.”

The success has brought tangible results. Like that wax truck.

It sounds like a simple thing, a trailer where all the wax technicians can work together. But when conditions change, the wax on the skis need to, too. It’s a heck of a lot easier to do that when everyone’s in the same space rather than being spread out and having to relay information in the cross-country skiing version of telephone.

It’s also given the skiers a confidence boost.

“We’re not just this club team showing up to try to compete against the best in the world,” Bjornsen said. “We are somebody, and I think the emotional pride that comes with it is like pulling an Olympic suit on it. It’s something that helps you believe you can be the best.”

An Olympic medal would do that, too. Give the team the added visibility necessary to ensure this run of success doesn’t end in Pyeongchang, as well.

American fans are among the most diehard there are — during the 16 days the Olympics run. To have lasting success, to carve out a space in the crowded U.S. sports landscape, you need the hardware. Be honest, you didn’t know ice dance from Dancing with the Stars until Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto won a silver medal in Torino.

Cross country is starting to see the effect on a small scale. The Americans won four medals at last month’s junior world championships, including a silver by Hailey Swirbul in the 5-kilometer classic that was the best-ever finish for a U.S. athlete, male or female.

“As you go through this whole journey, you learn to appreciate things in different ways,” Randall said. “While the results have been amazing for me, just to see the progress and the hard work pay off and the inspirational value it has back at home, it’s made it all worth it for me.”

That and the wax truck, of course.

By Nancy Armour

This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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