It’s difficult to discuss the last race of the season without trafficking in clichés. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, as we learned from Semisonic in, oh god, 1998. I hope you had the time of your life, Green Day intoned over mournful guitar chords a year earlier, in that one song whose official title is not actually “Time of Your Life,” but should be, and which is at the same time both the band’s most widely played track and also largely out of keeping with the stylings of the rest of their decades-long discography. (Yes I am a geriatric millennial; how could you tell.)
All of which is to say that Sunday’s races, first a women’s and then a men’s 20-kilometer mass start classic, were the final races of the season. The day’s results were, frankly, on the underwhelming side for some American athletes. But they existed alongside, and should not obscure, several truly impressive season-long accomplishments for Team U.S.A.
Finally, today also marked the final World Cup race for Hailey Swirbul. For what it’s worth, Hailey, it was worth all the while.
The points standings
Today’s women’s race played out against the backdrop of the season-long quest for the distance globe, and possibly for the order of the final two podium spots in the overall World Cup standings if someone had an epically good or epically bad day.
Coming into Sunday’s race, Tiril Udnes Weng of Norway had the overall globe sewn up, 154 points ahead of Jessie Diggins in second with only 130 points still available (100 points for the overall win plus 15 bonus points at each of two intermediate primes). Kerttu Niskanen of Finland was 99 points back of Diggins in third, a sizeable margin with only 130 points up for grabs, but still in contention, at least mathematically speaking. Things were far closer in the chase for the distance globe, where Niskanen led Diggins by only 22 points.
Rosie Brennan, by the way, was fourth in both standings, overall and distance, a fact that would have been headline news for American skiing well into the first decade of Brennan’s career as a pro skier. The bar just keeps getting raised higher.
The actual racing
Kerttu Niskanen skied today as if she were trying not only to win the race, but to make up that entire 99-point gap in the process. She won the first sprint prime, at 7.5km into the race, picking up 15 World Cup points when she did so. She did the same at the second and final prime, at 12.5km, adding another 15 World Cup points to her total. Closing the entire gap would be a tall order — and note that it’s not Niskanen’s point total that matters here so much as the differential between her and Diggins, right, like even if Niskanen took the full 130 points on the day, Diggins just had to finish 25th or higher to garner 32 points to keep the margin from this race to less than 99 — but Niskanen was skiing as if she hoped to pull it off.
Behind her, Diggins was skiing like a supremely talented athlete who will also be the first to tell you that classic striding in sloppy conditions has long been her bête noire. That is what the course featured today, and Diggins’s skis were perhaps not what they could have been, and that was that.
At the 7.5km sprint prime, Diggins was in 14th, 12.8 seconds off the lead. At 10km, she was down to 18th, though just 7.3 seconds back. At the next prime, at 12.5km, she was in 19th, 17.2 seconds back. By 15km, she was skiing in a three-women pack in 20th, 29.4 seconds back. Everyone is allowed to be human.
Diggins would ultimately finish 22nd, 1:15.2 back of Anne Kjersti Kalvå, who took her first career World Cup victory. Niskanen finished fifth, 3.3 seconds off the win, good for 80 points, plus both sprint primes to give her 110 points on the day. Diggins garnered 38 points. Niskanen had drawn to within 27 points, but no closer, and Diggins had secured second in both the overall and distance World Cup standings. Brennan’s (relative!) off day, combined with strong showings from athletes around her, saw her fall to sixth in this year’s distance standings, leapfrogged on the season’s final day by Heidi Weng and Anne Kjersti Kalvå.
It’s been a heady few years for American women’s skiing, led by Diggins and perennial bridesmaid Rosie Brennan. Two seasons ago, in the 2020/2021 World Cup season, Diggins won both the overall and distance globes, with Brennan fourth in both rankings. Last year, in the 2021/2022 World Cup season, Diggins was second in the overall. This year once more sees Diggins second and Brennan fourth in the overall, with Diggins second in distance as well.
Put another way, it is the second time in three years that Diggins and Brennan have gone 2–4 in the overall World Cup standings. It is Diggins’s third top-two overall finish in the last three years (and fourth in her career; she was a narrow second in the 2017/2018 season). Diggins is the only woman to make the overall standings podium in each of the last three years. America (!) is the only nation to have two athletes in the top four in any season in that time, and has done it twice. It’s been a strong few years for American women’s World Cup skiing.
Diggins led four Americans in relative proximity to the finish in today’s race. Rosie Brennan was 23rd (+1:25.9), Novie McCabe was 25th (+1:45.8), and Hailey Swirbul was 26th (+1:46.6). Julia Kern was 38th (+3:17.6). Sammy Smith, who was born in 2005, eight years after Green Day released “Good Riddance,” was 48th in her second-ever World Cup distance race (+5:08.7).
Some thoughts from the athletes
“I’m really, really proud of” her strong finish in the overall World Cup standings, Diggins said in post-race audio provided by USSS.
“This is my third year in a row that I’m top three, and it I think speaks to really incredible support from the team. A lot of hard work and consistent training, but also just amazing hard work, and consistent work, from all of our volunteer staff, our coaches, our wax techs who are working so, so hard every single day, so that’s really, really, really cool. I’m really proud of the year.”
Diggins was also asked about her takeaways from the season. Here’s Diggins:
“I think one of the biggest lessons is not to give up just because something is hard, and also to trust in myself. You know, it was a tough Tour de Ski, that was no secret, but I think if I listened to all the people saying that I should give up and go home, instead of trusting in my body and myself and the team, then I would not have stayed in the top three overall. And instead I fought for it, because I knew I was in a healthy place and a good place with my body, and I knew it was worth fighting for.
“So I think if there’s anything I want little kids to take away from this it’s: don’t give up just because something is hard. It’s okay to move on to something else if you’re not healthy or if something happens, but if you are healthy and you’re in a good place, it’s okay to keep fighting for your goals.”
Up next for Diggins: vacation time and beach time with her husband, Wade Poplawski, possibly also surfing time. “Fun fact,” Diggins observed, “every single one of my World Cup podiums has come after I started dating him. So there you go. It’s all because of Wade.”
Rosie Brennan, who wrote in her Instagram post that today’s race marked “far from a fairytale ending” for her, found herself once more gamely discussing a wooden medal.
“It’s of course bittersweet to be fourth place,” said Brennan in audio from USSS. “I’ve been there before. So I was really hoping to notch it up once, but was unable to. It’s incredible to be fourth, but it’s also that bittersweet position. So hopefully I can do some reflection and figure out what to do better, and come back stronger.”
Speaking to her season more broadly, Brennan observed, “It’s been really cool to find a lot of good consistency this year. And hopefully I can just build off that and find some stronger single results as well. And I think that’ll help.”
Finally, Brennan spoke to some overall highlights from the team this year:
“I’m super psyched about Ben winning the green bib [for top U23 skier this year], that’s been amazing. And we definitely have a strong group of now men and women coming up, which is just so cool to see. And that’s been a big motivator for me to continue my career as long as I have, is to make sure that we can make these good results stick and make it a thing that the U.S. is always competitive in any given race.
“And I think we’re getting there. It’s amazing to have — the girls were third in the Nation’s Cup [this season], and the whole U.S. was fourth overall. And gosh, we haven’t had a result like that in a long time, or at least in my career. So it’s really cool to see, and I’m excited to — hopefully these young kids keep me young, keep us all going strong and moving up. So I’m looking forward to that.”
Fare well, Hailey Swirbul
I cannot even feign objectivity when it comes to Hailey Swirbul. I first interviewed her in fall 2016, for this piece for FasterSkier about threatened cuts to the UAA ski team, and have been a massive fan ever since. I have done bounding intervals behind Hailey. I have won ski races on hand-me-down skis from Hailey. I have traded frank messages about the importance of mental health in skiing with Hailey. I think it’s clear from the tone of coverage on this site that I like all the athletes on the U.S. Ski Team, but I really like Hailey.
All of which is to say that, per Jessie Diggins’s post, embedded above, today was Hailey Swirbul’s final World Cup race. I absolutely intend to catch up with her next month for a proper retirement piece; watch this space. Until then, Hailey, thank you.