PYEONGCHANG, South Korea —The most precious of medals. Gold.
Forty-two years is a long time. Until Wednesday evening, Bill Koch’s silver medal at the 1976 Olympics was the sole U.S. cross-country medal captured at a Winter Olympic Games. In the PyeongChang freestyle team sprint — essentially the polar opposite event of Koch’s individual 30 k classic medal — Americans Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall seized the moment and won gold in dramatic fashion.
During the women’s 6 x 1.25-kilometer team-sprint final, Randall matched Norway’s Marit Bjørgen and Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, while Diggins outdueled Maiken Caspersen Falla of Norway and Stina Nilsson of Sweden. The U.S.A. won gold in a time of 15:56:47 minutes, while Sweden claimed silver (+0.19) and Norway bronze (+2.7)
Here’s what the evening’s semifinals revealed: During each of her three laps, Bjørgen was able to gap the field by what looked like 100 meters on the top of the course’s critical headwall climb. The ideal complement to Bjørgen was Falla. Both went unrivaled in Semifinal 1.
In Semifinal 2, Diggins charged off the line each time she was tagged by Randall, separating herself and forcing Nilsson to chase. Certainly Diggins’s skiing was the buzz amongst the competing coaches.
Heading into the final, on paper at least, the U.S., Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Finland, and Russia were the teams to watch.
But since history was made Wednesday evening, let’s cycle back for the brief story on the Randall-Diggins pairing. How did we end up here in the first place?
In 2012, it was a Diggins-Randall pairing, with Randall acting as the anchor leg, knockout-punch. (Remember, by 2013, Randall had won her third World Cup Sprint Globe). In Quebec that year, the tandem won their first World Cup freestyle team sprint together. At the 2013 World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, Diggins and Randall won gold. Before Wednesday, the two had not contested a team sprint together since those 2013 championships.
Much has changed since then. Randall, 35, took the 2016/2017 winter off to start a family. After a difficult return to World Cup racing, she earned an individual freestyle sprint medal (bronze) at last year’s 2017 World Championships in Lahti, Finland.
In the meantime, Diggins entered the international conversation, entertaining the idea that she is among the top five-skiers in the world on any given day. In these Olympics alone, the 26 year old has already earned three fifth places and a sixth. All things considered, this time around, Diggins was the anchor-leg lock. Randall’s own participation on the team was still uncertain as the Olympics began.
“With Kikkan, one of the hardest things this season was she developed a foot injury in December and January,” Randall’s longtime personal club coach, Erik Flora of Alaska Pacific University, told FasterSkier on Wednesday.
Coming into the Olympics, Flora noted they were still working through the balance of training and recovery. Shortly after arriving in PyeongChang, Randall completed a scheduled interval session up the sprint course’s headwall climb. The hill is a steep make-or-break V1-specific climb, which suits Randall’s powerful skiing style.
“She looked amazing; you could see it in the intervals,” Flora explained. “When she came around after the intervals, I asked how it was and she said it was just all right. I’m sure my eyes were a little bit wide. She looked in shape, ready.”
In the opening race of the Games, the 15 k skiathlon, Randall placed an uneventful 40th. However, in the 10 k freestyle and the 4 x 5 relay, Randall’s skating had come into form.
Randall, who had medal hopes for the 2014 Olympics individual freestyle sprint four years ago, holds herself to high standards. A 40th for her was clearly subpar. In terms of team naming, both Randall and her teammate Sadie Bjornsen were in the mix. In the 10 k, Randall had turned a corner after placing 16th, though Bjornsen finished one place ahead in the same race. After the first week of the Games, whether or not Randall would make the team sprint was still in question.
“Certainly those thoughts were running through my head after the skiathlon when it really just didn’t go well,” Randall told FasterSkier. “It was definitely nerve racking.”
“I knew I needed to perform well to make a bid for this team,” Randall continued. “In the 10 k, Sadie and I skied really close, so I just tried to really take one day at a time and tell myself that I was going to do my best to try to make that team. If I wasn’t named to the team, I was at least helping my teammates make sure they were in their optimal position. … I had the perspective of I want to be on that team, but I will be supportive no matter what.”
U.S. Ski Team (USST) women’s coach Matt Whitcomb explained how he and the coaching staff derived the composition of the team sprint. Along with communicating potential lineups with athletes, the coaches asked for athlete input.
“Kikkan is someone who will tell you if she is ready or if she is not,” Whitcomb said. “Sadie will, too, and so will Jessie. They’re fierce competitors; it’s a fine line being honest with yourself when it comes to the Olympics.”
Whitcomb also mentioned several variables that came into play in choosing Randall-Diggins.
“We know these athletes really well and how they were trending over the last three weeks,” Whitcomb said after the race, referring to the potential team-sprint members. “We really looked at the course, at the weather, whether the conditions were going to be firm, fast slow, and just how the athletes were doing.”
Whitcomb detailed that the final decision came down to Bjornsen or Randall.
“We felt like we couldn’t lose with either athlete,” Whitcomb said. “At the end of the day, Kikkan had a several-percent edge over Sadie and Sadie was unbelievably professional and caring and proud about it. It was one of my proudest Olympic moments is the way that Sadie handled that.”
On the first lap, Norway’s Bjørgen set the pace. As they came through the first exchange, it was Norway in first, Russia in second, Sweden in third, the U.S. fourth, France in fifth, Switzerland in sixth.
On the second leg, Diggins matched Nilsson’s leading pace and the main scrum of skiers remained in contact. Before the hand off, Bjørgen, Kalla and Nepryaeva led the pace. Randall tagged off in third, Kalla was second and Bjørgen first. Switzerland was fourth, Russia fifth and France sixth. Only a second and half separated those two groups.
The plot thickened as Diggins started to define the real medal contenders. Falla led over the main headwall and initially the downhill before the exchange. With her trademark aggressive downhill skiing, Diggins freeskated herself into first. Diggins tagged Randall in first place, 0.7 seconds ahead of Norway’s Falla, 1.5 seconds ahead of Sweden’s Nilsson. The closest remaining team was Switzerland, 9.9 seconds back.
The last of Randall’s three laps was her major Olympic test. Bjørgen and Kalla powered into and over the course’s second climb and Randall was right there. One lap to go.
Diggins wasted no time leading up the first climb with Falla and Nilsson chasing in second and third. Coming around the 180 degree turn and into the next downhill, it was Falla, Nilsson, Diggins. Racing to the front as the triangle of skiers made their way up the final hill was Falla in the front. As all three crested the apex and continued into the the high-speed and sweeping-downhill corner, 250 meters before the finish, Nilsson and Diggins came around Falla.
Coming into the final stretch, it was the American chasing the Swede by a ski length. Nilsson took the inside lane, Diggins the far right. The two went head to head, with Diggins closing out for gold.
“The last lap I was just going as hard as I could and I just wanted to tuck in behind,” Diggins said. “The downhills are my favorite and I wanted to get a good draft and a good slingshot and be in a smart position for the last 100 meters and I just gave it everything that I had because when you have a teammate that you really love and care about waiting for you at the finish, you’re never going to give up.”
Diggins collapsed after crossing the line as Randall ran out to embrace her. Nilsson, known for closing sprint speed on the international stage, had to settle for second with teammate Kalla.
“I could feel that Jessie had a really good day today already in my second lap so I just tried to stay with her on the last uphill and downhill,” Nilsson said in a post-race press conference. “For sure I could feel her behind me when the last 100 meters came so I just tried to focus on my skiing and do my best but today she was stronger than me.”
With Norway’s bronze, Bjørgen became the most decorated Winter Olympian. Her 14 medals pass the previous record held by Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjørndalen.
“Of course I’m really happy with the bronze today,” Bjørgen said at the press conference. “It’s hard to understand that I have 14 medals. I think when I stop skiing I can look behind me and see what I have done, but of course I’m really proud of what I have done over many years. My first Olympics was in Salt Lake so it’s been a long career and I’m proud of it.”
This Olympics marks a major turning point with mainstream attention and pressure regarding a potential medal for the U.S. cross-country team.
“This is the first time going into a championships that I’ve ever felt that kind of pressure,” Diggins said.
“I don’t know how you boys do it all the time, I think that’s amazing,” she added turning to the men’s team-sprint gold-medal winners, Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Johannes Høsflot Klæbo of Norway. “For me it’s been hard to not let it get inside my head and to race for myself.”
Randall’s response to handling the pressure referenced their World Championship team sprint win in 2013.
“We came into this race just knowing that if we skied smart and doing our jobs, good things could happen,” Randall said. “We never really talked about medals. We said let’s just go out and do it and have fun. I think that really worked well for us today.”
Long after the race had ended, USST Head Coach Chris Gover met up with FasterSkier. Asked who he first contacted to acknowledge nordic-sport history in the U.S., Grover’s response was simple.
“The one person I sent a text to right away was my wife,” Grover said. “And she was awake, even though it was four in the morning she was awake for it. Obviously nobody has experienced firsthand the sacrifices that my family has had to make for me to be gone for so many years. This is my 17th year working for the national team, and my wife and kids have had to make a lot of sacrifices for me to be gone and away so much time. So it really is going to mean a lot for me to share this success with them.”
Racing continues on Saturday with the men’s 50 k classic.
— Alex Kochon, Andrea Pontyondy-Smith, Ian Tovell, Harald Zimmer, and Chelsea Holmes contributed