Apologies for the delay in posting this story on a big news day. This reporter spent the morning parenting his children, which he does not regret, and then came home to an internet outage across much of Anchorage, which he does. Tomorrow’s sprint race coverage should, fingers crossed, be more timely.
Race: Women’s 10-kilometer interval-start skate, Lillehammer, Norway
Is there embedded video you can watch? Once more, yes. All my thanks to this weekend’s Spanish (?) YouTube user and uploader.
What happened at the front of the race: Jessie Diggins is pretty quickly finding her race form, is what happened. Starting out of the biathlon stadium at Lillehammer, Diggins was the third-to-last athlete to pass through the start wand and onto the “backup” course (the iconic Birkebeineren skistadion course was unavailable due to low snow conditions), three laps of a 3.3ish-kilometer loop.
Diggins was fourth at the first time checkpoint, but only by 2.4 seconds. She was second after one lap, now by 1.7 seconds. She was up to first by halfway through the race — but only by 1.6 seconds over Katharina Hennig of Germany, who had started 26 bibs and 13 minutes ahead of her.
By the 8.2-kilometer mark, it was Hennig first and Diggins second, on paper, in the interval-start race, with Diggins 1 second back after 8,200 meters of racing.
But Diggins put 3.2 seconds on Hennig over the ensuing 700 meters; at 8.9km into the race, Diggins was up by 2.2 seconds. She had the lead, but a lot can happen over one kilometer, and the top step on the podium would clearly come down to that final kilometer of racing on tired legs.
Now cue up the fourth slide here and watch the video of Diggins’s finish:
Jessie Diggins in the finishing throes of a race is somewhere between a sight to behold and a force of nature. “It is horrible, yet fascinating, this struggle between a set purpose and an utterly exhausted frame,” as moonlighting sports journalist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of the closing meters of the infamous 1908 London Olympic Marathon. Diggins herself has said more than once that her technique in such moments is, shall we say, not the cleanest or the least ragged.
But, well, scoreboard. Diggins covered the final 1.1 kilometers in 2:28.3, Hennig did so in 2:29.9, and Diggins won the race. Her final margin of victory was 3.8 seconds. (Heidi Weng of Norway was third, 15.4 seconds back.) A gracious Hennig immediately surrendered her long-held spot in the leader’s chair and trotted over to attempt to congratulate her American competitor — “I’m so happy!,” she told them — only to console herself with hugging Diggins’s teammates while the winner writhed on the ground. She was eventually able to give Diggins a gentle pet.
“That was a really exciting day,” Diggins said in audio remarks shared with several media outlets, though transcribed in full only here. “It was such a cool atmosphere. First and foremost, I want to say thanks to the wax techs and the team; they worked so hard. And it’s always important to have really fast skis. You can’t do it without it. So I’m really, really proud of their effort and their heart, because I think my skis were so awesome out there. And it gave me a lot of confidence because I felt like I was flying on those downhills.”
“I went into the race with the plan of trying to ski really smooth, and pace it evenly. Be really, really working all the transitions, all the corners, really pushing hard over the top into every downhill and trying to just maximize every little half a second that I could.
And it was also SO cool. There were a lot of Americans out there. There’s a group from the Methow Valley out there cheering on one of the hills. There’s a family from the Stratton area of Vermont. So it was super, super cool to feel like we had so much love from home out there, which is unique when we’re on the road on the World Cup. It’s not unique that we get cheering, but it is unique that it’s someone that you know, from where you train, so I think that was really, really special. And I’m really thankful for all the cheering.
“And it was just really, really cool to feel like — I felt in Ruka that my fitness was in a really good place. My brain is in a really good place. My body in Ruka was not in a great place, yet, but I could feel it was coming back. So it was a really great confirmation that, okay, I was able to rehydrate, refuel, take good care of my body. And today I felt like when I asked my body to go deep in the pain cave, it responded accordingly. Which is really wonderful when your brain controls your body and not the other way around, so I’m really thankful for that. And happy to have had a good day out there.”
Looking ahead to Planica, and inside the stats: Two additional notes on Diggins’s day before moving on to the rest of the team. For one, the top-8 result makes her the first athlete to qualify for the American team for this year’s World Championships in Planica, under the selection criteria promulgated by U.S. Ski & Snowboard.
At one level, this is completely unsurprising; Diggins was first and second in the overall standings in the last two World Cup seasons, and at this point in her career the surprise would be if she were not an early qualifier for the World Champs team. But it is still worth noting, in hopefully the most low-pressure way possible, that the 10-kilometer interval-start skate race will be one of three distance races contested at this year’s World Champs. One of the only entries missing from Diggins’s redoubtable race résumé, as Devon Kershaw recently noted, is an individual World Championships gold medal; this race would be a sterling opportunity for her to pull it off.
Two additional 10km interval-start skate races will be held this World Cup season: in Les Rousses, France, in late January, then in Toblach, Italy, the following weekend. There will also be a 20km interval-start skate in Davos two weekends from now, and a 20km skate pursuit in early January for the fourth stage of the Tour de Ski.
Friday’s victory was Diggins’s 13th individual World Cup victory all time (counting “normal” and stage World Cup wins the same, which feels fair), bringing her into a tie with Kikkan Randall for the most World Cup wins by an American. The greatest number of individual wins among active women skiers is 17, by Ingvild Flugstad Østberg; Diggins is tied with Heidi Weng for second on that list.
What happened for the Americans: Diggins, deservedly, got the headlines, but there were four other Americans in the race, most of them pleased with their day. Julia Kern was 25th, 1:04.5 seconds back, in a notably tight race. Sophia Laukli was 29th, 1:25.6 back. Alayna Sonnesyn was 34th, 1:32.1 back, marking the second race in a row the SMS T2 skier has posted one of her top-two all-time World Cup results. Her SMS teammate Lauren Jortberg, in her World Cup distance debut, was 48th, 2:58.5 back of Diggins.
What do the athletes think about today? A sterling question. Many thanks to all the athletes for their time in providing an answer.
Julia Kern, via transcribed audio to Nordic Insights, spoke to the highs and lows of the day, and the overall vibes on the team: “Today was a super fun day for the team. Our team had really good energy going in, with some dancing and just really good team vibes heading in. And so I was really excited for this weekend. And it was a great start to the first race of a three-day race series.
“I would say I felt a lot better about my distance skiing today than last weekend. I think it’s a step in the right direction. But I feel like I’m still searching for my distance form a bit, but super happy with how today went. Our skis felt really great and there were some rides out there that I could latch on to for a little bit. So that was really fun. And of course, seeing Jessie top off the day as the winner was really exciting to see as our team cheered her on in the finish.
“One of the strengths today for me was pushing when I got really tired, and latching on to rides and staying on them even though I was kind of maxed out. So I think the fight was starting to get there. And I like mass starts better, so I think that portion of having people skiing by and to ski with really helped with finding that race gear.”
Sophia Laukli, via email to Nordic Insights, talked about working into the ski race season following a running-heavy offseason (she is, btw, among the best trail runners in the world): “I definitely feel like I’m racing more and more into shape, which is pretty usual for me — takes a couple races/weeks to really get back into it so the trend is promising. I’d been doing a lot of running leading into the season, so I knew my overall fitness was there, it’s now getting used to the higher effort and pushing harder, which I feel is coming. In general, I was definitely happy with [today’s] race and result, especially with being uncertain how the course would suit me (not a ton of climbing), so it was a step in the right direction.”
Alayna Sonnesyn, via email to Nordic Insights, spoke frankly about racing at something less than her absolute best: “Today was my second best World Cup result ever and although I am proud of that, I felt hungry for a lot more today. There has been some added stress following me around the past few days with people around me getting sick and I’ve been dodging just enough to keep my head above water, but race prep and recovery have gone down the drain. That being said, I think if I had been able to go into today with the same energy I had during race-prep yesterday, my solid race would have been outstanding. So it’s a little bittersweet! But it also gives me confidence that the best is yet to come and I’m looking forward to it!”
Lauren Jortberg, via email to Nordic Insights, spoke honestly about her World Cup distance debut and building back from surgery: “It was a super cool opportunity that I feel grateful for. I haven’t really felt much of a fight distance skiing since I had back surgery two years ago, so today was pretty cool to feel that sort of fighting feeling. The result wasn’t anything special, but finding that racing feeling always is, and I’m excited to build off that. It also just helps to continue to get more experience and nerves out of the system!”
And Rosie Brennan, finally, who was DNS with a cold, addressed the real-world financial implications of being unable to start a race, in an email to multiple media outlets: “I caught a cold on Thursday and made the difficult decision to not race today. As with many Olympic sports, we don’t have salaries so without sponsors, my income is solely made up of prize money and result bonuses from equipment sponsors. As such, missing a race you consider your biggest strength [Brennan has three prior World Cup podiums in interval-start skate 10km races] hits extra hard. I am heartbroken with the bad timing of this illness and hope it passes quickly.
“There were many stand out performances from our team today which I am doing my best to use to lift my spirits and confidence moving forward.”
— Gavin Kentch
Would you like to read more articles like this? Do you like hearing from nearly the entire team about their race? Would you like to help cover the site’s expenses to send Gavin on in-person reporting trips to both Houghton and Whistler for U.S. Nationals and World Juniors? Find out more about our GoFundMe (terms and conditions: we’re donating anything in excess of actual expenses back to NNF), and consider donating, here. You may have noticed that there are not, currently, any ads up on this site; your support truly makes a huge difference to the financial viability of this startup website. Thank you for your consideration.