Lining up at the start of the women’s 5-kilometer freestyle individual start on Friday, it was a different Jessie Diggins than a year ago. Here the American was, again in Toblach, Italy, again in the third-to-last stage of the Tour de Ski, again about to race another one of those rare formats on the World Cup circuit: the 5 k individual.
But this time last year, she had never won a World Cup, let alone reached the podium in an individual race. Thirteen minutes later (well, more than that, after all of the 5 k racers had finished), that all changed.
This time around, reporters asked her leading up to the 5 k freestyle whether this race was hers to lose. She joked that she was shooting for a top 23.
“I did feel that I was working hard to not put a lot of pressure on myself,” Diggins recalled on the phone after Friday’s race, Stage 5 of the 2017 Tour de Ski. “… Of course I want to go out there and win. I believed in myself, I believed in the team, I believed in the techs, so I knew that if everything went well, I knew I could win. But I didn’t want to make this bigger than big, crazy, pressure-filled day.”
So she woke up and went for a jog, “did a little happy dance,” and prepared as she would any other race day.
“When an athlete is in the top five, you get asked some pretty aggressive questions,” U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb said on the phone after Friday’s race. “They just want to focus on skiing the best race possible, but the media is asking you if you plan to defend your title. So I think [Jessie has] developed a really professional approach to some of the harder questions that she’s getting asked in these flash interviews just before the races. She’s saying, ‘Yeah, I do plan to defend my title,’ but just because you say that, it doesn’t mean you’re betting your house. You’re identifying that you are going to go out there and race with all you have.”
Per her request, Diggins started 12th on Friday in a field of 40 women remaining in the Tour.
“I asked the coaches to start me as early as possible for no other reason than I didn’t want splits,” she recalled. “It didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to go and race.”
One 5 k lap and 12:45.6 minutes later, Diggins finished as the new race leader, 14.9 seconds faster than Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla in bib 10. It was almost exactly 30 seconds faster than Diggins’s time on the same course last year.
She was psyched, but had no idea if it would be fast enough to stay in first. Either way, she had to race again the next day, so Diggins proceeded to gather her clothes and begin her recovery routine, starting with a snack.
By the time Diggins returned to the finish area, she realized that her time not only stood, but her fellow U.S. Ski Team member Sadie Bjornsen was contending for a podium as well. Bjornsen started 26th and initially finished second, 0.3 seconds ahead of Kalla and 14.6 seconds behind Diggins. By the time Diggins reached her teammate, Bjornsen was third after being bumped by Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski, who was still 13.6 seconds off Diggins’s time.
“I came back just as Krista finished and bumped her down one, but we were still just like, it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen,” Diggins said of Bjornsen’s first career podium. “And we were just so excited, jumping up and down. I hugged Sadie and she started crying and then I started crying. It was so cool because if the whole team can celebrate like that … when you win by yourself, that’s fun, and people are psyched and stuff. When more than one person’s on the podium, then the whole team really celebrates. It’s a different feeling and it’s way cooler and I love it a lot.”
“At first I couldn’t believe it,” Bjornsen recalled on the phone about her third-place finish, which became official not too long after she celebrated with Diggins.
“Two months ago, I was struggling so much that I wasn’t sure if I would be starting on the World Cup,” she said of painful bone spurs in her heels. “The emotions of what it took to get there comes to you at that point. … I had to wait till Heidi [Weng of Norway] came in to seal the deal.”
Bjornsen’s reality began to set in once Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg (who entered Friday ranked third overall in the Tour) finished seventh, 8.9 seconds off Bjornsen’s time and 23.5 seconds behind Diggins. Then the last starter, Norway’s Heidi Weng (previously ranked second in the Tour) crossed the line in fifth, 2.9 seconds slower than Bjornsen and 17.5 seconds off Diggins’s winning time. That bumped Østberg to eighth (and subsequently everyone else after Weng down one place as well).
So that was that. Diggins defended her victory in the Toblach stage one year later and notched her third-consecutive 5 k win, which ties the record set by Russia’s Elena Välbe in the 1990s (for the most 5 k freestyle victories in a row), according to an International Ski Federation (FIS) press release.
Also of note, Friday marked the 17th World Cup win for the U.S. women’s team. According to FIS, 13 of those wins came in sprints. The four others were a 3 k freestyle prologue (won by Kikkan Randall at the 2012/2013 Tour de Ski) and now three 5 k skate races (all won by Diggins in the past year).
“The skill we are all trying to accomplish, to acquire, is to become a faster ski racer, and also how to win, and how to be not such an emotional and taxing process,” Whitcomb explained. “It’s a big deal. There’s a lot of responsibilities along with success, so the difference between [Diggins] this year and last year is her dealing with these little pieces of the equation that come with being a ski racer, and particularly a successful ski racer.”
As for Bjornsen’s podium, he said that was expected.
“Not in a way that would put pressure on Sadie, but in a way that … we believe in her,” Whitcomb said. “She’s an incredible competitor. For it to finally come together in an individual race, Sadie’s been on the podium numbers of times [in team events] and with teammates. To have it happen in a distance event, in an individual race, that’s very special.”
“It feels so good to get my first individual podium… but even more special to get that first one with a teammate on top,” Bjornsen wrote in an email. “All the girls on this team are an inspiration to me. We are dreamers, but we are also believers. It’s crazy how much confidence you can get from a teammate’s success if you allow yourself to stand beside them.”
‘What Would Jessie Diggins Do?’
In terms of the 5 k itself, it was one you couldn’t attack like a sprint. Or else you’d die, Diggins said. Then she laughed. “Well, probably not die, but you know, I’m feeling dramatic at the moment,” she jested.
Same ol’ Diggins after all. At 25, the Minnesota native simply has seven more podiums and three more wins than she did before last year’s Toblach 5 k.
All kidding aside, Diggins said it was important to be mindful of Toblach’s altitude, some 4,500 feet above sea level. Also, the first half of the course is a bit of a grinding, winding uphill, she said.
“If you finish the very first climb, and you’re like, I nailed it, now I really need to tuck for a minute, you don’t get that [in Toblach],” Diggins said. “So I guess you do have to ski each section fast, but with enough gas in the tank that you can finish hard.”
Before the race, Diggins made a plan that included breaking the course into sections and attacking every part of it to the best of her ability.
“Instead of thinking about splits or worrying about what anyone else was doing, I was just thinking, right now I need to V2 this climb as well and technically good as I can, and then I’m going to corner on the fastest part of the snow possible, and then I’m going to ski this downhill in a tiny tuck,” she reflected. “Just really dissecting the course, and focusing on each second. I guess Matt [Whitcomb] would probably call that being in the flow.”
Diggins found her rhythm, as did Bjornsen, who came close to a podium three days earlier with her previous career best of fifth on Tuesday in the Stage 3 skiathlon.
“All this time, it’s like, I know I can do that, it’s just a matter of doing it,” Bjornsen said.
She had been waiting for this moment all her life, but felt particularly ready for a breakthrough after getting sick in France in mid-December. Then at Stage 2 of the Tour de Ski in Val Müstair, Switzerland, she said she went out to win the 5 k classic mass start, but ended up 35th, outside the top 20 for the first time this season. Bjornsen said she “exploded” because of the altitude, which crushed her confidence.
“I had to work hard to get mentally back in the game and that confidence from that fifth was huge for me,” she said of Tuesday’s 10 k skiathlon. “And I was like, that’s crazy in skating that I can be that strong. After that I was like, I should believe in myself.”
Throughout the race, she told herself two things: “Stay strong Sadie,” and “What would Jessie Diggins do?” Bjornsen wrote. “There is so much work on the second half of the race, and Jessie is just amazing at being strong on that section … so I was imagining her the whole second half in front of me, and it seemed to have worked”
A year ago, Bjornsen blew up on this course and hung on for the second half for 13th at the finish. Not too shabby, but she had been out to win.
“Last year I told people, ‘I’m going out there to win,’ and at the time that was maybe a little bit of a joke because I hadn’t had too much skating success…,” she said.
This time, she decided to have more of a plan and told herself Friday’s race would be 12 minutes of solid work without any rests. Mostly, she told herself to back off slightly early on. At one point, she was concerned she started too hard.
That made Bjornsen laugh later on Friday as she considered her splits. At 1.6 k, her time ranked 10th and by 2.1 k, she was 12th overall. But by 3.4 k, she was back in the mix in fifth out of the 40 finishers. (Diggins paced it similarly, with the seventh-fastest split at 1.6 k and fourth-fastest at 2.1 k, before taking the lead for good at 3.4 k.)
“I finished and I was like, hmm, I wonder how that went,” Bjornsen said, after specifically requesting no splits during her race, like Diggins. “I wanted to go out there today and see how strong I could be inside my head. I love this course, but pacing is important, and I wanted to do my own thing.”
Then she saw Randall’s husband Jeff Ellis, who conducts televised post-race interviews for FIS, at the finish. He showed her the live results on his phone. Bjornsen couldn’t believe it. She sat down, and a few moments later she started walking out of the finishing pen.
“One of the [finish-area officials] told me I should stick around and I was like, ‘Really?’ I didn’t think that was necessary,” Bjornsen recalled.
Then Østberg finished, and she realized her result was for real.
“We were just so giddy,” Diggins recalled of the moments following the race, including a cool-down jog together before standing on the podium. “… I remember how psyched she was for me last year when I got my first one, and I was so psyched for her. It was cool to share that experience.”
They shared that moment with the rest of their team as well.
“As one of the U.S. coaches, as you approach the media zone, people just make way for you,” Whitcomb said of the experience of having an athlete, especially two athletes, on the podium. “They move their huge television cameras so you can experience a piece of that podium, and make sure you get your little picture on your iPhone, too, and having the opportunity to share it with them.
“What’s also special … what makes our team different the most, is right behind me, hopping over fences is Rosie and Liz and Kikkan, who managed to see the podium ceremony as well,” Whitcomb said of U.S. women’s team members Rosie Brennan, who placed 23rd (+43.3), Liz Stephen, who placed 32nd (+49.7), and Randall, who placed 40th (+1:38.6), on Friday.
“You don’t see other teammates out there very often; that’s something we take a lot of pride in, making sure to really take a moment to celebrate the success of your teammates,” Whitcomb said. “It’s easy to say, but hard to do.”
Brennan reflected on her first glance at the live results. When she got as far down as Bjornsen, she stopped before finding her own name.
“At that point, Sadie was sitting in second and Jessie was winning,” Brennan said on the phone. “I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ It was crazy ’cause literally in that second, it was the best my legs had felt all day. I got a flush of really good feelings, so then I ran back out to find them. So I didn’t know how I finished until much later.”
Beyond being incredibly excited for both her teammates, Brennan said it was inspirational seeing her year-round training partner at Alaska Pacific University, Bjornsen, finally reach the World Cup podium.
“I know how hard she works for it, and I know a lot of the challenges that she’s had to overcome to get there,” Brennan said. “It gives me a huge sense of confidence because I train with her … and I know that it’s possible for all of us to be there, and it just makes me believe in my program and what we have going on. It’s huge for everybody.”
During the women’s race, Bjornsen’s younger brother and teammate, Erik Bjornsen, was in the car en route to the next World Cup stop in Val di Fiemme, Italy, with teammate Noah Hoffman, but followed the live timing online.
“I kind of feel like I won today just because Sadie had such an outstanding race!” Bjornsen wrote in an email. “I’ve pretty much trained beside her since we started taking this sport seriously. I’ve seen her make steady improvements over the years, but this summer/fall she took another big step in her skating. I’d never seen a girl ski that nicely and I knew she was going to get some podiums this year. … She’s a ridiculously dedicated and hard worker, she deserved that result more than anyone!”
“It was an incredible day,” Stephen wrote in an email. “Seeing anyone’s first individual podium is always a really special thing. Sadie has worked so hard on her skating and distance skiing and to see it pay off is really amazing, and it will not be her last. As for Jessie, Toblach is decidedly her course! Two years in a row taking the win, and today by a wide margin is a pretty fun thing to see. Our girls are on fire and it is a momentum for the team to latch onto for sure.”
Weng New Tour Leader, Diggins 5th, Bjornsen 9th
Overall, Diggins kept her spot in fifth in the Tour, 1:23.3 seconds behind Weng as the new Tour leader with two stages in Val di Fiemme to go. Østberg is up to second overall, 11.1 seconds back, and Sweden’s Stina Nilsson slipped to third (+16.3) — after starting in the Tour leader’s bib — when she finished 20th (40.5 seconds behind Diggins).
Pärmäkoski remains in fourth overall, 36.8 seconds out of first and 20.5 seconds off the podium.
In an interview with iltalehti.fi, Pärmäkoski said she was surprised to be on the podium and felt it was more of a reflection of others being tired. Either way, she said a podium on Friday was an important step in her quest for a top overall finish.
“The weekend, with respect to everything, is open,” she said, according to a loose translation. “But the chances are good.”
Asked how it felt to win a race by nearly 14 seconds, a year after winning the same race by 0.9 seconds, Diggins said it was surreal.
“I guess I never expected to see that,” she said. “I mean you hope and you dream, and you train your butt off, but that was definitely a crazy thing, to realize that I could win by [not] just squeaking through, and I’m still trying to process that I guess.”
Bjornsen picked up three places for ninth overall in the Tour, 3:18.1 out of first and 6.8 seconds behind Germany’s Nicole Fessel in eighth.
“I’m just trying to think about each day individually,” Bjornsen said, “because as soon as I start thinking about overall, I get too nervous. Tomorrow’s another awesome race for me so I’m excited. I’m trying to conserve energy through this exciting time.”
The women race a 10 k classic mass start on Saturday followed by a 9 k freestyle hill climb up Alpe Cermis on Sunday to end the Tour.
“Every race is totally different. It’s a new opportunity, a new chance, so I’m going to go out tomorrow and go as hard as I can,” Diggins said. “I know that my fitness is in a great place. I have belief in myself that way. I think I just need to be focusing on my technique, as always. It was really weird, I had people ask me, ‘Will you be conservative tomorrow before the final [hill climb]?’ And I’m like, ‘When do you ever start a race and not plan on giving everything you have?’ I’m definitely going to go out there and race as hard as I can, and do my best, and then after, I’ll recover and then I’ll look forward to the next stage.”
Brennan Back in the Points
Also on track to finish out the Tour, Brennan notched her best result of the first five stages in 23rd, 43.3 seconds back from Diggins. Her split times were consistent, yet gradually faster, clocking in at 27th, 24th, and 23rd overall after she started 15th, a minute and 30 seconds after Diggins.
“We had really good skis … and I’ve raced this course quite a few times now, so I guess I had some familiarity with how it works, kind of how I wanted ski it,” Brennan said. “My legs felt absolutely horrible all day today. I was just trying to not think so much about how my body felt because it’s an individual start and you never know what’s going to happen. … I had no idea how well I was doing … and it worked out. It was great.”
Previously this season, Brennan placed 22nd in the 10 k freestyle at the World Cup in La Clusaz, France. That cemented her decision to stick around for the Tour de Ski.
“I really like the Tour format, it’s something that I think suits me pretty well, so it was definitely something that I had on my goals for the year,” she said.
“I’ve had a pretty rough Tour, and the last two days in Oberstdorf were particularly rough for me, and I was starting to wonder what the hell was going on,” Brennan explained. “I tried to start over fresh and just try to be like strong in my head, so I was really glad to see that I still had that, and that works, and I still had something in me.”
On the cusp of meeting the U.S. Ski Team’s objective criteria for qualifying for 2017 World Championships, Brennan said it was a good thing she scored points on Friday. She now ranks 37th overall in the Tour de Ski (+8:07).
“We have two more days of racing so I don’t know how that will affect it,” she said of her overall World Cup standing. “It depends on how I do and how the people around me do. Any day you can score points, it’s going to help you.”
According to Whitcomb, he and Brennan discussed World Championships qualifying the night before.
“Last night we talked, just kind of cleared the air and discussed how qualifying for World Championships is a stressful thing, and the fact that we had made the commitment to this tour, which means that you can’t go home and try and prove it at nationals anymore, you’re in it,” Whitcomb said. “Rosie went into this race trying to focus just on it, through a fresh lens, without the stress of the disappointing races she’s had so far in this tour. .. It’s one thing to say what you’re going to do, but to actually execute it is challenging.
“I think she did that today, and skied fantastically,” he continued. “It was really impressive also to watch her work the downhills and generate speed on false-flat downhill sections … areas where someone like Jessie can really crank, that’s not one of Rosie’s strengths. Her jam is the gradual uphill … It was almost one of the most satisfying races of the day, for our team, was to see Rosie break out like that. … However World Championships selection shapes up, she’s certainly gotten two very competitive results. She’s feeling better about herself going into tomorrow.”
The fourth U.S. woman continuing on in the Tour, Stephen finished 32nd to move up one spot to 25th (+5:01.7) overall.
“I was shooting for a top 20 today, but was satisfied with my position, given how hard I skied and how mentally engaged I was today,” Stephen wrote. “My overall standing in the Tour this year is not where I would like it to be, but it is not over and I won’t stop trying to catch people until we cross the finish on the top of Cermis!”
Randall finished 40th to slip from 10th to 22nd overall (+4:44.9). On the rest day before Stage 5, Randall decided she would be finished with the Tour after today.
“I actually felt pretty good going into today’s stage,” Randall reflected in an email. “I had a good ski yesterday and felt fresh on my jog last night. It’s been fun to race back-to-back just to get so many opportunities to race and work on getting the feelings back. My body has seemed to handle it pretty well but maybe today was one race too many.”
Her plan all along had been to stop after the fourth or fifth stage of the Tour.
“I decided yesterday that I would stop after today’s stage and rest up for next weekend’s sprints here in Toblach,” Randall explained. “It was actually a little harder decision to stop than anticipated since my overall result in the tour was going so well. But I felt that a partial tour and sprints next weekend would be the best prep for my biggest goals of the season in Lahti.”
Randall will spend the next week in Toblach preparing for the next weekend’s regular-season World Cup individual and team sprints there Jan. 14-15.
“This season is really a big experiment to see how my body returns from having the baby,” she explained. “I’m happy with some of my results here during the tour in which I felt better race feelings coming around. My biggest goals of the season are still focused on finding top form in the world championships and all the decisions around racing are being geared towards then.”
Whitcomb reiterated that the team “took a gamble” in choosing Randall for the Tour.
“She had not scored any points before the Tour de Ski, so we saw it as more of an investment in her winter, to get her these starts, that fixed start position,” he said. “It meant that other skiers who had scored World Cup points were not able to be selected, but that’s one of those decisions that’s painfully hard to make, and I think Kikkan really made the most of it with having some really breakout results, and we feel good about things.
“The goal of the Tour de Ski, for Kikkan and a few of these other people, is not necessarily to finish it, but to have some great races and to use it in what ways we can to prepare for the later in the season,” he continued. “Most specifically, the World Championships. The Tour de Ski is, for a lot of these athletes, is a separation tool we use to build some fitness, and then recover, and move into Period 2.”
For Randall, witnessing a new combination of American women atop the podium, after she and Sophie Caldwell placed first and third in a skate sprint in March 2014, and Diggins and Caitlin Gregg finished second and third in the 2015 World Championships 10 k freestyle, made her “incredibly pumped and proud,” she wrote.
“We’ve known Jessie would be strong in this race but I’m especially psyched for Sadie,” Randall continued. “She’s been qualifying so well in sprints this season and now she took it all the way through 5km. All fall she was battling problems with her heels but she stayed focused, didn’t get deterred and now she’s flying!
“I vividly remember the joy and excitement of getting those first podiums and it makes me so happy to see the girls get to experience that for themselves,” she added. “I’m glad I have played a part in helping them succeed and it’s such satisfying vindication for our whole program and everyone that helps contribute to USA’s success!”
Asked how the U.S. team usually celebrates a World Cup podium, Bjornsen said they usually have “some sort of little toast.”
“I don’t know if it will happen [tonight], but it will happen at the end of the Tour,” Bjornsen said.
— Gerry Furseth, Jake Ellis and Chelsea Little contributed