PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Sitting one-by-one across the stage dressed in what appeared to be the brightest of bright white tops, Kikkan Randall, Jessie Diggins, Rosie Brennan, Ida Sargent, and the Bjornsens (both Erik and Sadie) held court for the attending media Wednesday afternoon at PyeongChang’s mountain cluster media center. All athletes are members of the U.S. Ski Team (USST) and 2018 Olympians.
Randall, the seasoned vet, fielded a spectrum of questions centered around her role as the foundational piece of the U.S. women’s cross-country-ski juggernaut. It’s the Anchorage-based skier’s fifth Olympic Games.
Back in 2002, when Nina Kemppel competed in her last of four Games for the U.S. cross-country ski team, Randall, as part of the same 2002 Salt Lake squad, was beginning her own five-Olympiad odyssey. Sixteen years later, Randall could reflect on being, at times, a lonely success story on the women’s side, to the present, when on the most recent World Cup weekend in Seefeld, Austria, two U.S. women scored wins: Sophie Caldwell in the freestyle sprint, Diggins in the 10 k mass start skate.
As much as the press was there to see a champ like Randall, they also were captured by Diggins’s spunk and verve. Erik Bjornsen took it all in after stating in his intro that this was his first press conference. He proceeded to take out his smartphone and unabashedly capture a few panning video shots of the scrum of reporters there to learn more about the U.S. cross-country team poised to make history in South Korea.
For those who follow the sport and in particular the U.S. women, much was said about the “team” and their devotion to it. But each athlete also spoke of their personal goals and ambitions.
After the main press conference, when athletes took one-on-one questions, FasterSkier had an opportunity to check in with Brennan, Erik Bjornsen and Sargent.
2018 is Brennan’s first Olympics, yet she arrives with a broad scope of World Cup experience to draw from. She scored two top-20’s in successive World Cup 10 k freestyle races in Davos, Switzerland and Toblach, Italy. She nailed a 15th place in the Tour de Ski’s opening skate sprint. It was a solid Period 1 on the World Cup for Brennan.
Much has been written about the U.S. women’s collective prospects in the 4 x 5 k relay. That team, which could include more names than the four-member team is alloted, is still not set in stone.
Asked if she would be approaching her first race opportunities as a demonstration to the coaches of her overall fitness, Brennan was anything but coy.
“I have been struggling the last few weeks since the TdS with my own racing,” the 29-year-old Brennan said. “And so at this point I am just hoping to had enough time to turn my form around and to race better myself. I obviously don’t want to be part of a relay team that I’m going to let down. So I want to be in my best shape before I even think about that. That is one of my goals and I hope I’ve had some time to turn my shape around. But I think at this point, I am looking for every opportunity to race that I can get to show that I have turned this around and that I am ready and then will start looking at that relay spot.”
Most recently, Brennan struggled in Seefeld’s 10 k skate mass start, finishing 53rd. Brennan also after completed the Tour de Ski (TdS), which concluded Jan. 7. Understanding that maintain high level fitness on the World Cup is a challenge few master, Brennan said the TdS had sapped her energy.
“Just a little more fatigue than I expected from the Tour despite the fact that we only had six and half races,” Brennan acknowledged. “There were a lot of weather events so everything was a little more energy intensive and a little hectic. I came in with a lot more training than I have in the past, I trained a little harder during Period 1 in hope to be sharp for the Olympics, and I think I didn’t respect that as much as should have and was a little tired afterwards. And also fighting a little illness and things like that. I am feeling a lot better now and I hope a little rest is all I needed.”
For Erik Bjornsen, who is experiencing his second Olympics after racing three individual events and the 4 x 10 k relay in Sochi, these Games could become a stepping stone. In Seefeld, Bjornsen placed ninth in the 15 k mass start skate. If Bjornsen’s positive energy in the press conference was any indication, he might be trending into rarefied air on the men’s side.
“I think I could have some good performances,” Bjornsen, 26, said. “I don’t have the pressure that everybody else does, but I do have have the potential to put in some really solid results.”
Last year at the Nordic World Championships in Lahti, Finland, he and teammate Simi Hamilton placed fifth in the team sprint. In PyeongChang, the course remains championship-tough, but athletes are more exposed to the elements as the tracks were built on a hilly golf course.
“Of course, I’m really excited for the team sprint,” Bjornsen said. “And these courses, I’ve been out there once, it is a little early to say. It seems good. It is a golf course, but there are some big climbs, which I like. I like hard-work sections but there are also some flatter sections, which suits a big guy like myself. And then having wind, I was joking before, it should be good for the guys that are chasing.”
Then let’s talk about tough and gritty. Topping the list would be Sargent. If you missed this, here’s the short version. Back on Jan. 27, prior to her start in Seefeld’s skate sprint qualifier, Sargent fell and broke her thumb.
“It was a complete clean break,” Sargent, 30, stated. “Every pole plant was very painful. But actually, I felt like my brain was a bigger a detriment because it happened 15 minutes at most before the start and I knew that something was wrong. I was thinking the whole time, ‘This is bad, this is bad.’ I could feel the pain and was thinking that something very serious was going on.”
On her literal whirlwind of treatment, Sargent flew to Vail, Colorado, for surgery on her thumb at The Steadman Clinic.
“I had a plate inserted and seven screws securing this plate,” Sargent explained during a follow-up phone interview on Thursday. “So good hardware in there, and an amazing surgeon. My surgeon was very confident; he has done this before, and he knew that the plate was extremely secure so that he wasn’t at all concerned about it moving or not me not having the stability. I think he ended up using a slightly larger plate just to make sure it was plenty secure.”
The next morning, post-surgery, Sargent was cleared for active recovery to increase her mobility and bring down the swelling.
“Two days later I was skiing, doing some one pole and some two pole,” Sargent added. It was incredible to me that they can take a clean break and fully stabilize it.”
Sargent was clear when asked if there’s anything she cannot do.
“Nope,” she said. “The only restriction is just personally managing the pain when I ski. The bone is not fused together yet, that eventually will happen. I also obviously have the trauma of having screws put into the bone and there is the swelling, but that has been going down. I have been working with Zuzanna Rodgers here in Korea. We have working on some exercises and some massage to reduce the swelling.”
It is cold here in PyeongChang. It’s a dry cold, but when temps are slow to budge from the single digits and eventually warm to the low teens, cold is cold. Most people with surgical procedures requiring the insertion of metal plates claim cold temps can complicate their sensations. Here in Korea, that seems not to be a problem for Sargent.
“I was talking with someone yesterday who has a plate in their hand as well, and they feel the cold,” Sargent said “I don’t think I feel it because I still have a fair amount of swelling on top of the plate at the moment. So I think that that is providing some increased insulation. That is the bonus of that maybe. I haven’t felt the cold from it.”
Sargent stated she was scheduled to race next Tuesday’s classic sprint.
“As long as I am feeling like my thumb is good to go and I feel confident in my ability to ski well with it, I’ll be racing that,” Sargent explained. “The sprint is on Tuesday, so I still have five days or something at this point That is the plan right now and putting the full focus on being recovered and ready for that day.”
The 2018 PyeongChang Olympics begin Saturday with the women’s 15 k skiathlon.