LIBEREC, Czech Republic — Kikkan Randall sprinted frenetically through the snowfall, stretching her ski across the finish line and breaking new ground for U.S. skiing.
Randall held off Finland's Pirjo Muranen in a photo finish Tuesday to take silver in the sprint at the Nordic skiing world championships, becoming the first American woman to win a world or Olympic medal in cross country skiing.
Randall, of Anchorage, Alaska, had never had a top 10 finish in four previous worlds. She led for most of the 1.3-kilometer final but was overtaken by Italy's Arianna Follis in the last turn before the home straight. Follis finished in 2 minutes, 39.3 seconds, and Randall was 0.6 seconds back.
"Everything came together today," Randall said. "It was just kind of a magical day. A good one for me personally, but really a good one for our sport in the United States."
The silver was the first American cross country medal since Bill Koch won bronze in the 30K at the 1982 worlds.
Also Tuesday, Ola Vigen Hattestad of Norway won the men's cross-country sprint, holding off teammate Johan Kjoelstad. Hattestad won in 3:00.8 seconds to beat Kjoelstad by 0.4 seconds. Nikolay Morilov of Russia took bronze.
These worlds have become a turning point for Nordic skiing in the U.S. Halfway into the championships, the Americans lead the medals table with three golds, a silver and bronze — after never having won more than one medal at the same worlds. Traditional powerhouse Norway has six medals, but only two golds.
Todd Lodwick has two golds in Nordic combined, with teammate Bill Demong finishing third in Sunday's Gundersen event. Lodwick's first gold came in a mass start Friday, hours after Lindsey Van became the first women's ski jumping world champion.
"This is big-time for us," said John Farra, the Nordic director of the U.S. Ski Team. "To get a cross country medal, I'm not sure people fully realize what that means."
Randall was determined to show the Americans can be a power in cross country as well.
"We knew we had it in us too," she said. "I went to the awards ceremony that first night when our national anthem was played twice, and definitely felt like I wanted to take my shot at that."
Randall won both her quarterfinal and semifinal heat by taking an early lead and protecting it. She tried the same tactic in the final to avoid getting tangled up in someone else's ski or pole, but Follis proved too strong in the end.
After years of mediocre results, Randall had a breakthrough in 2007 when she won her first World Cup event in Rybinsk, Russia. But she nearly had to give up skiing last year when a blood clot developed in her leg toward the end of the season, forcing her to take blood-thinning medication for six months.
"Every time I get an ache or something in my leg, it gets me a little nervous and scared, but luckily things have come through really well," she said. "I just hope it stays that way. It's definitely been a fight to come back, but today makes it all worth it."
Randall will compete in Wednesday's team sprint and Thursday's relay. She's hoping to keep improving ahead of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
"Americans love it when Americans are winning," she said. "I hope that everybody back home is watching to see what's possible, and gets behind the team going to the Olympics next year."