Liz Stephen didn’t so much steel American spotlight on Sunday as much as she simply continued to bask in the glow of the best season of her life. Her long stint up front with the lead chase group and eventual ninth-place finish highlighted the U.S. team’s day at Holmenkollen, but right along with her a few minutes back, two teammates toughed out their own races to finish the 30 k feeling relatively good about the effort.
And, of course, they were ecstatic for their teammate.
“She skied awesome, I’m super-proud of her,” said Holly Brooks, who finished 35th and +5:12.7 behind Therese Johaug’s (NOR) winning time.
The Homenkollen course backtracks on itself in a few places, which gave Brooks an opportunity to see part of the race unfolding up front.
“Partway through the race I saw her in that big chase pack, so it was fun cheering her on during my own race,” Brooks said.
A few places in front of Brooks Jessie Diggins joined Stephen in the top-30 in a time of 1:25:22.7, just over four off behind Johaug’s mark. Rosie Brennan, the current Continental Cup starter, dropped out of the race after the second lap and did not finish.
Diggins had a simple objective on Sunday in starting the 30 k: enjoy the Holmenkollen experience while skiing relaxed.
“In the spring World Cups the field is so tough and the pace is hard from the get-go,” she wrote in an email. “I wanted to not worry about the field stringing out and not bury myself in the first lap. But I also wanted to enjoy the Holmenkollen experience, because it’s really one of a kind. There’s thousands of fans camped out along the course, all cheering and screaming. It’s so awesome!”
Wearing bib 24, Diggins skied within or close to the top-20 through the first two time checkpoints. During the middle of the race she lost time, but after switching to a new pair of skis at 13 k she reattached herself to a small group that pulled her along for the rest of the race and brought her back into the top 30.
“We worked together the rest of the race,” Diggins said. “It was super cool — we traded pulls and stayed at a really good pace.”
Sunday was only Diggins’ second 30 k in Oslo, and with 30th place she picked up one World Cup point and finished 15 places ahead of where she did in the same event last season.
“Jessie’s was a hard-earned point,” said U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb. “She hasn’t been feeling great in distance but the approach today was to go out and have fun and she did that. So [we’re] really proud of that point.”
Diggins was ‘psyched’ for the point as well. “I’m happy with the result and mostly psyched that I was able to have fun out there and truly enjoy the experience,” she said.
Brooks, who finished just over a minute behind Diggins in 35th, was in a similar boat as her teammate. Distance racing hadn’t been going well for her prior to Oslo and Brooks wanted get out in a fast group and see how long she keep up.
“It was OK,” she said of her race. “There were some definite low points and some points where it got a little better.”
In a field full of competitive Norwegian nations group starters, Diggins and Brooks agreed that the pace started out fast or a 30 k.
“I wanted to get in a fast group and keep it going, so I had a faster start and kind of faded back through the pack, which was frustrating,” Brooks said. “My first pair of skis weren’t super fast and then I switched at 13 k, halfway through, and had much better skis and was able to turn it around the third and fourth loop.”
Brooks went from the top-30 at 8 k to 37th after she changed skis. From there she moved back up two places to finish 35th with the help of a few skiers around her.
“For a while there I thought I’d have to ski by myself and I was not looking forward to it, and then finally a group caught me, or I caught them I don’t remember, and I could work together with them,” Brooks said.
Diggins and Brooks, along with Stephen, are each ranked comfortably in the top-50 after Sunday’s race and are headed to the four-stage World Cup Finals in Stockholm and Falun, Sweden this week. Though she can feel the season-long fatigue during distance races, Brooks is looking forward to the sprint in Stockholm and the prologue in Falun.
“For me the shorter stuff now seems to be going better. I’m pretty tired and it shows the most in distance racing,” Brooks said. “So I’m definitely not ecstatic about today’s race, but it wasn’t a complete disaster either, and at this point I’m just trying to have fun with the races that are left.”
Brennan was a DNF after she experienced pain from a recurring back injury, but she made the difficult decision in the hopes it would help her in the remaining races on her calendar. Continental Cup starters also go to Sweden, and after that there’s SuperTour Finals to think about.
“I didn’t feel great from the start and I have been suffering from a back injury for awhile now,” Brennan wrote in an email. “The combination got the best of me and by 8 k in, my foot and most of my right leg had gone numb which was the last straw that led me to drop out. It’s never a proud moment and something I hope never has to happen again, but I still have nine races left this season and would like to be able to do all of them. So my back won this battle, but hopefully this is the last.”
Brennan added that her injury had taken a general “turn for the worse” in the last month, and that she’ll have to figure out soon how to move forward with it.
The U.S. will head to World Cup Finals this week with an unprecedented five women on its squad: Kikkan Randall, Stephen, Diggins, Brooks and Brennan. It will make logistics busier than ever for the team behind the scenes, but Whitcomb welcomes the change.
“It’s kind of new territory for us,” he said. “It’s going to be a busy week, but we’re stoked.”
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting.