Diggins did it. Racing as the presumptive pre-race favorite, on a course that everyone in the field knew was tailor-made for her strengths, Jessie Diggins stood up to the pre-race expectations and delivered, destroying a bevy of world-class athletes to take her, and America’s, first ever individual world champs gold in the women’s 10-kilometer interval-start skate race earlier Tuesday in Planica.
By any measure, Diggins’s career was already complete before today’s race, and she would probably be the first to tell you that she is proudest of the platform that her results have provided her to talk about causes that she cares about, such as climate change advocacy and eating disorder awareness. But if you want to focus only on the results sheet for a moment, today marked an emphatic exclamation point on an already glittering career.
Jessie Diggins was the favorite for this race. Stop and think about that for a moment as an American ski fan. This analyst’s “power ranking” from earlier this week just calculates the mean finish from three prior 10km skate interval-start races earlier this World Cup season (but it’s more work than I did, so certainly no snark there) — but it underscores that Diggins was the only athlete in the entire field who made the podium in all three races.
And, yes, she is tied in these rankings with Ebba Andersson of Sweden, who won two of those three races, including both held in World Cup Period 3… but no one in the world skis working downhills, as characterize this course in Planica, like Diggins. European oddsmakers firmly installed Diggins as the pre-race favorite coming into Tuesday, with good reason.
“This is the perfect course for me,” as Diggins told media in the mixed zone. “With the new snow, it meant that you could push the downhills, and work really hard, and for me that was perfect.”
If you’re reading this website, you probably race, or you certainly know someone who does. Think about the pressure you feel when others expect you to win, or, even worse, when you expect yourself to win. Diggins said at the start of the season that nothing would compare to the pressure of coming into the last Olympics as the defending gold medalist and overall World Cup champion, and I clearly believe her. But she also told FasterSkier’s Nat Herz at the finish of today’s race that she couldn’t pretend that the pressure wasn’t there, and I also believe that.
Against this backdrop, Diggins showed up and threw down. She started today in bib no. 38, the fourth athlete out of fifteen in the seeded field. Ebba Andersson went out on course in bib no. 42, two minutes after her. Tiril Udnes Weng: bib no. 54, eight minutes later. Ingvild Flugstad Østberg: bib no. 56. Anna Kjersti Kalvå: bib no. 60. (Thirty-second start intervals, if you want to do the math at home.)
Diggins did have the benefit of splits from Rosie Brennan (bib no. 34) and Frida Karlsson (bib no. 36), who by any measure should be classed among her main competitors for today. But she would have the benefit of only back splits for several of her competitors, and not until the race was one-third to one-half of the way complete.
The way Diggins skied Tuesday, she could have raced this event as a time trial in a training bib and still won. Through 0.9 kilometers, she was 1.1 seconds off the lead, right in a virtual pack with Brennan, Karlsson, Krista Pärmäkoski, and several other expected names. But by the 2.2-kilometer mark, it was already Diggins in the lead, Karlsson 3.7 seconds back for second, Brennan 3.9 seconds back for third. At 4.5km, it was Diggins first, Andersson second, and Karlsson third (Brennan was now down to sixth, 15 seconds back), but with only 1.6 seconds separating the podium, and the race very far from over.
Lap two of the 10km was career-defining. From 4.5km to 5.2km, Diggins stretched her margin over second from 1.1 seconds up to 2.9 seconds. From 5.2km to 7.7km, she grew her lead from 2.9 seconds to 5 seconds, the advantage moving in the right direction but victory far from assured. A lot can happen over 2.3 kilometers — keep in mind that Laura Gimmler lost roughly eight seconds over the final 400 meters of Sunday’s team sprint.
Then from 7.7km to the end, the crux of the race, the moment when everyone in the field has the greatest motivation to push as hard as they can and thousands of hours of physical and mental training are all brought to bear in the service of this single goal… Diggins extended her lead over Karlsson from 5 seconds to 14.
At this level of sport, with these margins, where the greatest athletes in the world are all within fractions of a percentage point of each other, this is huge. Diggins at her best is the best athlete in the world at closing down a race course. She showed it today, taking the win in emphatic fashion.
The medal is the sixth (!) world championships medal of Diggins’s career, alongside three Olympic medals. It is, by my calculations, the first individual gold medal in history for an American nordic skier at a global championship; Bill Koch managed “only” Olympic silver and world champs bronze in the 1970s and 80s, and Diggins had previously won Olympic and world champs gold in the team sprint. Nordic skiing was first contested at the Olympics in 1924, and at FIS World Championships in 1925. It’s taken a while to get to this moment.
I can’t say strongly enough that I don’t think that Diggins “needed this medal for her legacy,” or some other expression of this discourse; this would be insulting to an athlete who would consistently rather talk about her team, her teammates’ accomplishments, or her advocacy work than her own medals. But if you were looking for cracks in Diggins’s armor, or holes in the “medal record” section of her Wikipedia page, today’s performance handily disposes of them. Even Zach Caldwell, embedded above, cannot be grumpy today.
So what was Diggins thinking about on the history-making day?
“I’m just so proud of our team,” she told reporters in the mixed zone, “because they gave me really great skis, and you have to have that for it to all work out. And I’m just so thankful.”
She added, in reference to her experience during last month’s Tour de Ski, that she knew she was in good shape at the time, but that, “to be honest, we struggled with the wax on my skis [during the Tour]. And you have to have everything to have a good race. And that’s why when we win, we win as a team, and that’s why this gold is for the whole team today, because I could not have done it without the amazing team. So I’m so proud of them, and it means a lot. And I think we all learned a lot, and that makes it even more special.”
Turning to the race itself, Diggins was asked in the mixed zone when she first knew that she had gold in her sights. (Thanks to USSS for the mixed zone audio.)
“I didn’t want to really believe it until the race was finished,” she answered, “because I was scared to really look. But I think when I finally got up off the snow and saw the times, I thought, Oh my god, this was one of the best races of my life. And I already knew that because of how it felt. You can feel it in your body when you’re in a good place, but it was just really special.”
It was a special day for the whole team, Diggins made clear. “I was really emotional getting to see my coach and wax techs after the race,” she said. “And they were cheering like crazy out there. It was so special. It gave me goosebumps to know that all the techs were running out of the truck and getting on course today, and they really pulled out all the stops to give us amazing skis.”
Diggins was asked if this was the “perfect day” on skis that she has long been chasing.
“It might have been,” Diggins said. “I think so. All the pieces came together, your body and your brain and your pacing and your technique and the skis and the weather — everything came together to be great conditions for me today, and that was very special.”
Final word from Diggins: What does the breakthrough individual gold medal mean to her?
“I hope it inspires the next generation to know that you can do it, and just work hard with a great team. I hope it inspires some little kids with glitter back home.”
Behind Diggins, Rosie Brennan finished 15th (+1:14.1), which would have been the headline a generation ago; I am more than old enough to remember when Kikkan would finish 29th in a World Cup, and the FasterSkier comment section would light up with (heartfelt and deserved) congratulations for the top-30 result and World Cup points. American skiing has come a long way since then.
“It was a tough day,” Brennan wrote in comments to Nordic Insights, “and I don’t really have any explanations other than that. Nothing went wrong, I felt prepared, I feel fit, and for reasons I can’t explain, I just really didn’t feel like myself out there skiing today. I was going for a medal and believe I am capable of that so I put myself in a position to do so and obviously couldn’t hold that. I still believe you have to race that way if you want to find yourself on a podium so I am proud of myself for executing the race I planned and giving myself a chance. It was amazing to see Jessie plan and execute a perfect race and that gives me hope that some day I can do the same. I hope to harness some of that good energy and move forward to finish out the week.”
Sophia Laukli finished 25th (+1:44.2), her intermediate splits telling the story of a consistent rise up the rankings: 41st, 28th, 29th, 25th.
Laukli alluded to these splits in her post-race remarks, writing to Nordic Insights, “I was really excited for the race today. I’m a big fan of these courses so I was psyched to see what I could do. The race itself went well and I felt great which I was happy about. I also had a lot of fun throughout the race and moving up bit by bit. Results wise I was maybe a little bummed and wanted a bit more, but that’s just how it goes sometimes. So overall I was happy to feel good and have some fun out there, which is all I could really ask for.”
I also asked Laukli to speak to something that she liked about the way that she skied. Here’s Laukli: “I was really psyched to consistently move up throughout the race. I knew I was probably going to have a slower start to the race with how the course played out, so just realizing that and not thinking too much about early splits was the goal. I felt that I definitely pulled this off which was a good feeling for sure, if only the race kept going a little bit longer that would have been nice!”
And Julia Kern was 34th (+2:29.1), with splits (29th, to 28th, to 31st, to 36th, back up to 34th) reflecting that, as she notes below, she went out hard with the intention of being competitive, but just didn’t have it in her today. Here’s Kern, via email to Nordic Insights:
“Although today was personally not the day I dreamed of, it was a huge day for our team. I am so incredibly proud of how our team reached a big milestone today, and how Jessie skied her heart out! I’m proud that I went out hard with the intention of being in the fight from the beginning. It is hard to post a top result by racing conservative, so I went for it and unfortunately today was one of those days that things didn’t come together, and I am not sure why.”
The next race in Planica is the men’s 15km skate tomorrow. Thursday is RELAY DAY for the women.
— Gavin Kentch