The women’s 4 x 5-kilometer relay was held earlier Thursday at 2023 Cross Country World Ski Championships in Planica, Slovenia. Norway won, by roughly 20 seconds over Germany, with pre-race favorite Sweden left to outsprint Finland for bronze after a rough day for the Swedish team. The American women, for not the first time in the past decade, came into a championship relay with their eyes on the podium and came up slightly short in their quest for a medal, finishing fifth.
The rest of this article is going to be largely an oral history of today’s relay, given the high-quality and chronological nature of the mixed zone audio received from USSS (thanks Leann!).
Hailey Swirbul walked out to the start line shortly after noon local time today wearing a red bib, for the classic scramble leg, labeled with bib no. 5. I don’t normally lead so heavily with results on this website, but anyone reading this is probably aware, and everyone racing for the U.S. was undoubtedly aware, of the American women’s history of results in this race stretching back to Jessie Diggins’s second-ever world champs in 2013: fourth in Oberstdorf in 2021, by 0.8 seconds; fifth in Seefeld in 2019; fourth in Lahti in 2017; fourth in Falun in 2015; fourth in Val di Fiemme in 2013. Oh, and sixth in the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022, and fifth in Pyeongchang in 2018. That’s a whole lot of fourth- and fifth-place finishes at global championships over the past generation of American skiing.
In many of these races, the U.S. was considered a potential to even a strong medal favorite, at least on paper. But “you never know what can happen on relay day,” as Diggins said after today’s race. That’s why you play the games.
So with this history, and this potential, and the defending Olympic champion Russian women not on the start line and so perhaps even more of an opportunity for that long-sought relay medal, Swirbul headed out into the start area for the Americans. What’s it like walking up to the start line for that leadoff leg and just knowing that everyone is paying attention to you, Swirbul was asked after the race.
“I think it’s such an honor to have a spot on this relay team,” Swirbul said. “It’s like a huge opportunity. And I know that we’re in the hunt for medals when we get onto the start line with this team. So it definitely feels like pressure.”
What happened after that? “I knew that I had a chance to try to give Rosie someone to ski with [on the second classic leg]. And I really wanted to do that for her today. But I didn’t make it happen. So it’s easy to see those 20 seconds that are impossible to make back up and blame myself for it. But I’m really proud of how everybody skied today.”
As Swirbul noted, she was skiing with the pack, until she wasn’t. The leaders put on a strong move in the second half of the first lap — not without friction, as Tiril Udnes Weng for Norway and Emma Ribom clashed repeatedly, Weng ultimately earning a yellow card for obstruction for her efforts after skiing over Ribom’s skis on a pivotal corner — and Swirbul was not quite able to follow. Norway, Sweden, and Finland came into the first exchange essentially together, Germany 1.6 seconds back in fourth, a plucky Slovenia in fifth (+14.7) after leadoff skier Eva Urevc, buoyed by the home crowd, had skied out of her mind to keep Slovenia in sight of the leaders. (The rest of the team was not able to keep pace; Slovenia would ultimately finish 11th.)
Swirbul came through in sixth, 20 seconds back of the lead pack, 17 seconds ahead of Canada’s Katherine Stewart-Jones in seventh.
Here’s Swirbul again, on how she approached that opening leg:
“I knew that the four teams that were the top four teams [Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Germany] were probably going to be the top four teams, and I knew that they might break away even in that first leg. I was prepared for that, and ready to suffer as hard as I ever have. I think I found myself in a position that I had hoped not to be in right when that break happened, when that push started. And suddenly you look up, and there’s a gap. And it’s really hard to close that back. But I fought, and I think our whole team fought really hard. And it’s just inspiring to see everybody fight hard.”
And yet more from Swirbul here, on how she approached that opening lap knowing that she was going up against four of the strongest skiers in the world, all trying to break the field, and that her job was to try to hurt a lot to stay with them:
“I actually think about it like preparing to walk into battle, in a way. And once I found out I had this start, that’s how the process goes for me. People like to say that happiness is fast, which I think is true for many people. But I think I find my deepest gear when I’m mentally prepared to really suffer. So that’s what it’s been. But the vibe has been awesome, and our whole team has been stoked. And we know what’s possible. So it’ll happen.”
Onto Rosie Brennan, Swirbul’s longtime domestic teammate with APU in Anchorage, for leg two. Swirbul, as noted, had hoped to give Brennan someone to ski with on the second classic leg, and hadn’t quite been able to make that happen. But that’s ski racing.
So how did Brennan approach her leg, which existed in an awkward limbo 20 seconds back of the lead pack?
Brennan had watched Swirbul when “the gap opened up on the big climb” on leg one, Brennan said. “And then I also saw Hailey just, like, double down her efforts to try to make it back up. And that was really inspiring, honestly. I was like, Okay, there’s no giving up out here.
“And so I tried to kind of harness some of that, and find this balance between skiing my own race and also taking a chance. And I tried to do that as best I could. But it is definitely hard when you have four of the best skiers in the world working together [at the front of the race], and you’re alone. So I really tried to just keep thinking about every second, every second, you never know what happens if I can give Jessie every second possible. … It was an okay effort, for sure.”
Ahead of Brennan, Ebba Andersson for Sweden suffered a costly fall and broken pole on a tricky uphill corner, incurring a loss of time that helped lead to pre-race favorite Sweden finishing the day a surprising third. Roughly 30 seconds later, Brennan fell and broke a pole in the same place. But she did so on a low-speed uphill, essentially right in front of USST Head Coach Matt Whitcomb, and was able to get a new pole fairly soon.
“That was a good place to do it,” Diggins favorably observed in the mixed zone
“It was obviously less than ideal, but I don’t think it was a dealbreaker for us today,” Brennan mused.
After slightly under 14 minutes of largely solo, consistently valiant effort, Brennan came into the exchange zone in fifth. Fourth place was 39 seconds away, and the podium 43 seconds away. But in leg-three skier Jessie Diggins the Americans had perhaps the world’s single best athlete over a 5km skate, and as Diggins herself said after the race, “you never know what can happen on relay day.”
Unfortunately for the Americans, what happened was that Ingvild Flugstad Østberg picked this moment to destroy the field. The one-time Norwegian star, who has suffered through health issues, stress fractures, and body composition issues over the past several season, skied an all-time leg to blow the race wide open.
At the start of leg three, Norway had been in third, six seconds behind Germany and Finland and just three seconds up on Sweden. Five short kilometers later — and again, keep in mind that these are the best athletes in the world skiing head to head; a shift of 12 seconds over less than 12 minutes of skiing is huge, actually — it was Germany that was six seconds back of Norway, with Sweden 15 seconds back and Finland 21 seconds in arrears. It was a triumphant and devastating performance by the Norwegian veteran.
Okay, back to Diggins, who had the day’s second-fastest time for leg two, faster than any of the lead-pack women chasing Østberg, while skiing solo the entire way.
“You just get out there ready to throw down the best leg you possibly can,” Diggins said of her relay strategy. “And so I knew my plan was going to be, hope that they’re not working together in the front. And basically our only chance was if I skied the leg of my life, and they kind of messed around up there. And unfortunately for us, Ingvild went on a flyer, which — I am incredibly impressed and happy for her. So on the one hand, I’m like, Darn, because if she hadn’t done that, I think I was starting to make up time. And then the wheels started to really come off, because my only chance was to ski it like it’s a 3.5km race and hope that they’re messing around up there. But at the same time, gosh, that’s cool. I am so truly happy for her. And happy for the German girls, too; relays are kind of their thing, and that’s awesome. So I think there’s a lot of positives.”
Diggins continued by describing her sensations today and her views of the team overall:
“When I tagged off to Julia — god, that was some of the most pain I’ve been in in a very long time. I really put it all out there, and couldn’t feel my whole body. And I’m proud of that. I could not have given a single second more. And that’s a good feeling; that’s what you look for out there. And I know that’s what this team did. And so I’m nothing but proud of this team.”
What happens next? “You know, someday it’s going to come together for us. You know, you just kind of need all the magical pieces to fit together for a four by five for it to work. But we’re doing all the right things. And we know we’re there; we just kind of need all the things to fit together. And a little bit of luck.”
Finally, Diggins was asked, quite graciously, if she felt empathy for someone like Swirbul, tasked with going out and keeping a medal-favorite team in contention when, on paper, Swirbul is an amazing athlete and skied her heart out, but is maybe also not quite up to keeping pace with four of the best classic skiers in the world.
Diggins’s answer here was lengthy, but illuminating, and touches on the team’s history of results in this race over the last several championships.
“Oh, absolutely” I do have empathy, Diggins replied. “Because I’ve also felt that myself, when I was one of the younger ones on the team. But the thing is, we’ve had teams that on paper should have medaled, and blew apart after leg one. We’ve had this happen over and over again.
“You can’t put a relay on one person’s shoulders. There’s four people skiing it. And I used to really struggle with that. I would put so much pressure on myself. And I really struggled with that in Oberstdorf, like I felt like I had lost a medal for us. But I am not the team. I am one person on the team. And that’s something I had to come around and really come to terms with. It is four people. And so you can’t take all the pressure on yourself, just like you would never take all the credit yourself. So you can’t take all the pressure, or all the blame on yourself. And I’m nothing but proud of how these girls skied. And I think it can be so intimidating and scary. But, all these girls handled it really well, and just focused on the process, and ‘Let’s go out there and throw down the best 5km that we can do today.’”
After three legs of the best five kilometers that the Americans could do today, a spent Diggins handed off to Kern, her longtime domestic teammate with SMS in Stratton, in fifth. As had been the case for much of the race, the U.S. was at this point largely in no-woman’s land, 28 seconds back of the nearest competitor in fourth and another 7 seconds back from the podium. Sixth place, at the time Italy, was over a minute behind.
Kern skied gamely, completely on her own, for the final 5km. Here’s Kern on her day: “I just sent it out hot in just hopes of, you never know what’s gonna happen on a relay. And I just said, I’m gonna ski as hard as I can for this team and dig deep. And race until the end; you never know. And I’m proud of how our team put it out there. And it was tricky conditions today, and we fought really hard from start to finish.”
There was by this point relatively little drama left when it came to the Americans’ final finish position, which I say in no way to take anything away from Kern’s efforts, just that’s what the gaps were by this point in the race. Kern skied well, and alone, in fifth place throughout her leg, crossing the line in fifth into the waiting arms of her teammates. The Americans finished roughly 1:35 off the win, and 1:04 off the podium.
Ahead of them, Anne Kjersti Kalvå skied another all-time leg, within a second of Østberg’s scorching time for leg no. 3 and the fastest anchor leg in the field by nine seconds, to give Norway a comfortable win by over twenty seconds. Germany, which is suddenly the poster child for the whole being greater than the sum of its parts in international relays, was a jubilant second. Maja Dahlqvist of Sweden outsprinted Krista Pärmäkoski of Finland for third with relative ease, Pärmäkoski now finding herself on the other end of a sprint for bronze after pipping Diggins in the 2021 relay in Oberstdorf to which the American star had alluded.
It feels silly to ever call the Norwegian juggernaut a plucky underdog, but it has to be said that all four women on this championship team have been through a lot, and are easy to root for. None of them is young; Weng was born in 1996, then the others in 1988, 1990, and 1992.
Tiril Udnes Weng collected eight medals at World Junior and U23 Championships from 2014 through 2019, and made her World Cup debut in 2015, but toiled in relative obscurity for several years thereafter — until this season, when she has led the World Cup for nearly the entire season. Astrid Øyre Slind first raced on the World Cup in 2008, but did not make her first world champs start until… last week, whereupon the classic marathon specialist promptly medaled in the skiathlon. Ingvild Flugstad Østberg was an Olympic medalist at age 23, and a world champion at age 24, but barely raced over the past three seasons. And Anne Kjersti Kalvå was first racing on the World Cup in 2013, and first scoring points in 2017, but was also ranked all of 27th in the World Cup overall last season, and did not receive world champs starts for the deep Norwegian team until 2021. If you’d like a reminder that success in the world’s hardest endurance sport can be a long time coming, look no further than the four women making up today’s champion team.
Racing continues in Planica tomorrow with the men’s 4 x 10km relay, a race format first contested at World Championships in 1933 in Innsbruck. Ben Ogden, Hunter Wonders, Scott Patterson, and Gus Schumacher, in that order, will race for the Americans. This reporter hopes that the U.S. crushes and reaches the podium, but will be cheering from afar while pursuing his own race weekend and will not be covering the race for this site.
— Gavin Kentch