VAL DI FIEMME, Italy — In another display of the U.S. womens’ depth this year at World Championships, Liz Stephen led the team to its second historic performance of the week on Tuesday with a fifth-place finish in the 10 k freestyle. Two days after Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall won the team sprint, the momentum on the women’s team continued with Stephen delivering another best-ever result for the country in the distance event.
“It’s so cool,” Randall said of her teammate’s effort. “In the last couple weeks when everybody’s unsure of how the taper’s going to go, [Stephen] just stayed confident. And she did it today. Even when I was struggling in the last couple kilometers of my race I could hear on the loudspeaker that she was sitting in the top five, so that was incredibly inspiring.”
Stephen’s performance undoubtedly headlined the day for the American squad, but further down on the results her teammates felt only “not great” to “satisfied” about their top-30s. Diggins placed 23rd, 1:32 off Therese Johaug’s (NOR) winning mark, Holly Brooks finished 27th (+1:40) and Randall was 30th (+1:54).
Diggins and Randall both alluded to feeling unrecovered from the team sprint two days prior.
“I’m not recovered,” Diggins said. “It wasn’t my worst race, but it didn’t feel great. I was just trying to go out kind of smooth and try to pace it well so I didn’t blow up. And I didn’t blow up, but I think I could have gone out a little harder and I just couldn’t find the gear.”
The night before the 10 k Diggins and Randall both said the off day following their gold-medal performance in the team sprint went by much by faster than they expected. Randall said she experienced a lack of energy in the distance stage that followed her sprint win during the Tour de Ski earlier this season, and thought Tuesday’s 10 k was the result of similar proximity to an all-out effort.
“I had high hopes for this race with the way my skating’s been going this season and came into the warm-up feeling pretty good, but there just wasn’t a whole lot of engine behind the legs today,” she said. “I could make the movements but couldn’t quite find the same power I had earlier this season… I haven’t done a whole lot of distance racing since the Tour and it may take a little while to get the distance system going again.”
Both women expected to feel better with another day off before the 4×5 k relay, though the American team has yet to be decided upon.
“I think with another day off in between I should be able to recover for the relay,” Diggins said. “I think just with the emotion of the sprint I’m just not recovered, so I’m looking forward to some time off.”
For Brooks, a 27th-place finish was a better World Championships showing than her skiathlon, but didn’t quite reach what she was hoping for.
“I can’t be upset, considering how poorly the pursuit went the other day,” Brooks said. “Coming into it I had really set my eyes on a top 15, but maybe I’m just not quite there right now with my body, so I’m satisfied.”
Overall, the team was focused being happy for Stephen’s performance on Tuesday.
“I think good results are contaigious,” Brooks said. “You’ve seen that in our team all year. We started off pretty fast and someone’s always racing fast, someone’s always newsworthy and getting a personal best. We’ve all been together when people have been good and not so good, and it just makes it really human when you see people you know really well on the podium or getting good results. It’s not so much of a mystery any more.”
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting.