Teamwork makes the dream work, to coin a highly original phrase that has never previously been applied to the American cross-country team.
Jessie Diggins and Julia Kern have been club teammates with the Stratton Mountain School pro team for eight years now. They have been World Cup roommates for the past few seasons. In a pre–world champs press conference earlier this month, they sat side by side on a couch in real life and in a small on-screen window in Zoom, where they finished each other’s sentences. And in Sunday’s women’s team sprint at 2023 Cross Country World Ski Championships in Planica, Slovenia, they wore bib no. 3-1 and 3-2 and tagged off to each other five times over the high-speed, high stakes sprint course.
When Kern crossed the finish line into Diggins’s jubilant arms after the Americans’ final lap, closing out roughly 20 minutes of gutsy racing, she did so in third place. Jonna Sundling had crossed the line first to take gold for Sweden, to the surprise of no one. Tiril Udnes Weng brought home the silver for Norway.
The short version of today’s race is that, for not the first time in a championship team sprint, multiple top teams skied together through lap no. 4, before the determinative fireworks began on the fifth lap.
At the start of that lap, there were five teams skiing essentially together (within 1.71 seconds of the lead), with a sixth, Switzerland, another two seconds back and potentially in contact. That was not the case at the end of lap five.
Diggins skied her lap, her third and final one on the day, as if it were a sprint qual. She led 100% of lap number five; indeed, the Americans led virtually the entirety of the first five laps of the six-lap race, a strategy that both helps a team stay out of trouble and means that its athletes likely have to do the most work at the front.
Anne Kjersti Kalvå, for Norway, and Emma Ribom, for Sweden, stayed with Diggins throughout this lap. First Anja Weber, for Switzerland, and then Jasmi Joensuu, for Finland, did not, slipping out of this lead group. Laura Gimmler for Germany, a strong sprinter, was in contact with the leaders through nearly the top of the final climb… then lost a stunning eight seconds over the last few hundred meters of the sprint course. Skiing is hard, and when you lose contact while pushing at your red line, you lose contact. A surprisingly mortal Diggins lost roughly, well, eight seconds over the final lap of the classic team sprint at the Beijing Olympics in February 2022 under comparable circumstances. Again, skiing is hard.
One year later, it was Diggins’s turn to push the pace. She came into the final exchange zone with Ribom and Kalvå alongside her, but no one else, with Germany eight seconds back in fourth but feeling more like eighty. If Kern could stay on her feet over the next 1.4 kilometers, or not otherwise suffer an all-time collapse, the Americans would take home a medal of some color. Kern charged out onto the course, in the lead here as she had been all day, to see what she could do.
Roughly 1:40 into the lead women’s sixth and final lap, it suddenly became very apparent that that medal would likely be bronze for the Americans. Sundling moved to the front approaching the base of the main climb, leading for the first time all lap, and maybe the first time all day. Weng came with her. Sundling exploded up the climb, Weng matching her. Kern dug deep but was unable to respond, and that was that. Sweden and Norway headed down the hill in the lead to fight for the win, the U.S. safely in third but also definitely in third.
“Both Sweden and Norway had the advantage of being able to sit in the pack the whole race, and perhaps that was the difference where they were able to conserve a little bit more energy for this final lap,” the color commentator for Ski & Snowboard Live, an obscure retired athlete named Kikkan Randall, diplomatically noted at this point on the broadcast. (Sweden would sound similar notes after the race, saying that they had expected the American athletes to lead the race and that their plan was to refrain from leading until they absolutely had to.)
Moments later, Sundling surged again over the final short but sharp climb back to the stadium. Weng and Kern didn’t fall back so much as Sundling simply pulled further away; both women were skiing well at this point, but Sundling was unmatchable — at the risk of seeming to validate women by comparing them to the men, Sundling’s leg-six time was over four seconds faster than Edvin Anger’s leg-six time in the men’s race an hour later. There’s a reason that Sundling has won the individual sprint at the last three global championships in a row.
The three anchor leg athletes came toward the line and their waiting scramble-leg teammates, their finish positions assured at this point. Ribom threw her arms above her head as Sundling approached. Kalvå did the same as Weng drew near. Diggins danced in place, unable to control herself, then embraced Kern. Her younger teammate came across the line and slumped into Diggins’s welcoming arms. Tears were shed.
Sweden’s winning time was 19:40.73. Norway was 2.42 seconds back for silver, and the U.S. 5.33 seconds back for bronze. Germany followed nearly 23 seconds back in fourth, suggesting that its skiers had burnt all their matches to gamely stay with the lead pack through the first four laps, and had little left for the finish. That’s ski racing.
I have to admit that I don’t have athlete comments from Kern and Diggins at this time. I will of course update this article once comments are available from USSS.
“I really truly feel like we earned a medal,” Diggins told USSS after the race. “It’s not like we lost a gold, rather we earned a bronze! We earned the right to be proud of a really hard race and even if there was no medal we went out there and prepared and supported each other and believed and skied a good, hard, honest race and that is what makes me proud!”
In the same article, Kern told USSS that the day was “really exciting. I think we are growing the sport the best we can in the U.S. and we hope that this inspires people back home and keeps developing our sport in the U.S. to become bigger and bigger!”
In the absence of that, a brief history lesson: This is Kern’s first global championship medal, and Diggins’s eighth (!). Half of those, for Diggins, have come in the team sprint format: at Val di Fiemme, with Kikkan Randall, in 2013; at Lahti, with Sadie Bjornsen, in 2017; at Pyeongchang, with Randall, in 2018; and now at Planica, with Kern, in 2023. The Lahti bronze was in classic; the others, two golds and a bronze, have all come in skate.
Diggins skied on the scramble leg in 2013, then was the anchor in 2017 and, of course, in 2018. You may be familiar with the exultation, “Here comes Diggins!”; she was skiing the anchor leg at that time. Diggins is now back to the scramble leg once more.
In that breakthrough team sprint gold, from Val di Fiemme in 2013, Diggins was 21 years old, and Randall 30. (“One a seasoned 30 year old and the other just 21,” as a contemporaneous article on the race wrote of the two women.) A decade has passed. Diggins is now 31, and Kern is 25. I have no inside information as to whether today represents a passing of the torch moment or just a one-time strategic shift in team sprint ordering; I’ve also asked about that, and will update the article when those comments are available, too. But it’s worth keeping in mind that Diggins has been coming toward that line in team sprints for a full decade now, every time with her heart on her sleeve and a rictus of pain and determination writ large across her face. Sunday, for the fourth time for her, and the first time for Kern, those efforts led to a team sprint medal for the American women.
Update: Matt Whitcomb was on his email at 11 p.m. local time to answer this question (thanks, Matt). Here are his thoughts on the reasoning behind today’s relay order for the U.S., via email to Nordic Insights:
“We wanted to run Jessie first so we could take advantage of her sprint–distance combo physiology, and really put a stretch on the final 15 teams. Doing this allows Julia to be in control, and either continue the push, or relax a bit. However, we felt that if we relaxed, we’d find ourselves in a five or six team sprint at the end, so we went with the strategy that would best-secure a medal, which was to hammer. I had many coaches telling me after the race that they admired our approach. However, of course, this approach allowed Sweden and Norway to sit in our draft for 95% of the race, and to add to that, Norway was surprisingly strong today. We did expect that performance from Sweden, but Norway was impressive.
“At the end of the day, we coaches will advise, but we ask the athletes what they want to do — order and strategy — and then have a discussion. They have a lot of experience, and we’d be fools not to use their knowledge. It was a great day.”
— Gavin Kentch