FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.
VAL DI FIEMME, Italy — A gold medal almost looked predestined as American Kikkan Randall approached the finish line in the team sprint on Sunday at World Championships. She and Jessie Diggins won by an enormous margin, 7.80 seconds, thanks to some intelligent early positioning, Diggins’ brilliant recovery from a lost pole and Randall’s reliable all-around speed. It was their race to lose and they met expectations with an historic victory for their team and a country that has wanted that gold medal for decades.
Though only Diggins and Randall make it onto TV screens, they quickly pointed out afterwards that it took a herculean group effort to make their race come together, just as it always does. Their medals belonged as much to their whole crew as it did to the two of them.
“This is the first-ever gold medal for the U.S. at a World Championships in cross-country and we’re really psyched that our team came together today,” Randall told reporters at the press conference. “Our skis were amazing. Our coach was there when Jessie needed a pole. It was so great to celebrate with everyone in the finish just now, so we’re just going to enjoy it.”
“I think [this] means a lot for the whole team,” Diggins said. “It takes an entire team to make a race like this come together. It’s not just us two — it’s the wax techs, it’s the teammates cheering, it’s our friends. I think it means a lot and hopefully it’ll inspire some young skiers in the U.S. to get after it and stick with the sport.”
Athletes and support staff each have roles to play on game day, and on Sunday they were executed perfectly. The skis were lightning-fast. The athletes were healthy and fit at the same time, at the right time. Spare poles were where they needed to be on the course. Countless pieces have to fall into place to win a gold medal at World Championships, so it was with both excitement and relief that U.S. Ski Team head coach Chris Grover reflected on the day.
“I think there’s even a little bit of relief in there because…they came into that race as some of the favorites, for sure,” he said. “They won a team sprint earlier this year, they teamed up for a podium last year and so I think people looked at them as one of the favorites. I know they felt pressure to put together a great race here today, and they stepped up. They lived up to that pressure and then some. I’m elated for those guys.”
On the equipment side, the team wax technicians did what they always do before a race — woke up early to dial in a magic combination in the hours before start time. On Thursday it didn’t work out for the classic sprint, but this time Peter Johansson, Randy Gibbs, Cory Wubbles and Zach Caldwell nailed it.
“These guys are super pro and they’re just focused on the process,” Grover said. “We came here this morning, we got up early just like we do every day for every race and pushed really hard on the wax, and continued to push through the day. And the service team came up with some extraordinary skis. I’m sure people watching could see our skis were perhaps the best in the field. The women were standing up behind their competitors skiing down hills, so I’m really excited for the work that this group did.”
With the skis dialed, all Randall and Diggins had to do was ski the race they knew they could. But anything can happen in sprint racing as Sunday’s race demonstrated. Things could have unravelled when Finnish skier Riikka Sarasoja-Lilja stepped on Diggins’ pole near on the fifth lap and it came clean off her left hand, but they didn’t. Diggins skied for over 100 meters without it, keeping pace with Finland as she yelled for another one, while Alaska Pacific University head coach Erik Flora ran to hand off a replacement to her after the bridge.
Problem solved, Diggins sprinted back to the front and handed off to Randall with a comfortable lead. It hardly mattered that it was too long for her. “When I was little I used to ski with my dad’s equipment sometimes, so I can ski with big poles,” Diggins said, laughing.
By Flora’s account, the handoff happened so fast it was hardly a hiccup in the whole race. He hadn’t expected anything to happen at the spot he chose to stand, but when his radio lit up with U.S. coaches yelling “Pole! Pole!” he was ready to spring into action.
“I went to the top of the course with extra poles just in case something like that happened, and when I was walking up there I thought, ‘Oh, this will be kind of a quiet place to stand,'” Flora said.
“I heard over the radio Jessie broke a pole and I saw her a second later. When I heard the call I went running down the trail and it just worked perfectly — I got it to her and she didn’t miss a beat. She had such a strong transition, she was right back on the pack again.
In the midst of the action he had no time to panic. “Everything happened so fast, I don’t really remember a lot of it,” he said, smiling. “I saw her hand reach out and I got it to her hand and then realized what was happening. A lot of adrenaline and a lot of quick action — it was fun.”
When his own athlete came by a few minutes later on her last lap well ahead of the field, Flora let himself realize that Randall and Diggins were about to become World Champions.
“When I saw Kikkan come up the hill on the last lap I started to get a tear in my eye; I could see it was going to happen. And all the work she’s put in, all the work of the USST and the staff, everything came together today,” he said. “This has been something we’ve always dreamed about, and to make this dream — I can’t put it into words.”
There are probably dozens of other pieces that helped make the perfect race happen for Randall and Diggins. Not least among them was the support from fans at home. U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb says the long-distance cheers have been tremendously integral to their success every step of the way, and perhaps at World Championships most of all.
“It’s been no question that the more people that have believed in this team, the better the team has done,” he said. “The more people that continue to believe in it, the better we do, and it’s just this cycle that’s feeding itself. And I know that a day like today is going to recuirt a few more people to the sport and a few more fans. You look around here, there are tons of American flags flying. We’ve got a home feeling out here, and it’s really different than three or four years ago. Now we’re seeing fans in Europe and it’s just a different deal… There are thousands of people behind this small group of athletes that extends back to the U.S. For us the important thing is not the money, it’s the belief. And if we have that, the rest will come.”
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting.