PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Cross-country is still a roots sports in the United States. Woods-skiers and fitness buffs stoke the small engine driving the sport. But every four years, the buildup begins. The pressure notched up. There’s national television appearances for U.S. nordic athletes. Time to shine when the spotlight is pointed in your direction. For a fringe sport in North America, easy access to snow is a prerequisite, the Olympic buildup makes the cross-country conversation more relevant.
To study on paper the lineups for Saturday’s women’s Olympic 4 x 5 kilometer relay is to realize the chances of medaling are exactly that: chances. Every head-to-head matchup, like a Stina Nilsson versus a Marit Bjørgen as the evening’s anchors for Sweden and Norway respectively, has its pros and cons. Coaches make calculated decisions. Can Bjørgen gain enough ground on Nilsson before the final straight? Can Nilsson stay close enough to edge Bjørgen on the final straight? Ultimately the skiers go out and ski.
U.S. Ski & Snowboard put out a press release as the U.S. relay team was announced detailing the women’s 4 x 5 k relay results chronologically both on the World Cup and major championships.
The U.S. women’s best-ever result relay result on the World Cup was a second place in January 2016 in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. (That lineup was Caldwell, Bjornsen, Stephen, Diggins). Their best World Championships relay result was a fourth place last year in Lahti, Finland. 2014 in Sochi marked the women’s best Olympic result of eighth place.
Team. Much is said about the U.S. women’s team. So it’s fitting that in terms of promoting potential medals, the women’s relay gets the playbill’s frontpage.
Again it’s a calculated chance for any team — no nation is ever a lock. Look at Norway’s 4 x 5 k relay result in Sochi. Fifth. So could the U.S. end a medal drought 26-years deep on Saturday? No. So is the Olympic buildup fair — maybe not.
The beauty of the relay isn’t based so much in the euphoric glow of the podium’s top-three steps but how the chances played out.
Norway played its chances with the Bjørgen-Nilsson duel. And Bjørgen couldn’t escape Nilsson’s shadow until the closing 300 meters — a place where Nilsson herself was supposed to shine. Norway stopped the clock in 51:24.3. Sweden placed second (+2.0).
The U.S team of Sophie Caldwell, Sadie Bjornsen, Kikkan Randall, and Jessie Diggins placed fifth (+1:20.5). About all the pre-race hype and expectations, Randall, in her fifth Olympics, said it best.
“This is our best Olympic finish ever,” Randall said in the mixed zone after the race. “When we tend to be really focused on the medals it’s because we know deep in our hearts it is possible. I still think this is amazing that we put together four strong legs today and to get the best-ever result, keep the pathway going forward.”
This is not baseball’s World Series with a best-of-seven series. It is one and done. So when Caldwell toed the line in the scramble leg, there was belief. And if we want to fast forward to the end of this report, belief remains.
Caldwell sent it for the first half of her leg. Russia’s young upstart team took it out hot — their strategy one of padding their skate legs for the onslaught from Norway’s and Sweden’s skate legs. Only 8.1 seconds off the front at the time, Caldwell then fell off as the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) and Norway surged ahead by the 3.58 k mark. Caldwell came through to tag Bjornsen in 11th place (+1:01.5).
“I think that our team has more belief than we ever had right now,” Bjornsen said after the race. “It’s just so motivating and exciting, and we show up to every race just so excited to see what we can do, and kind of goosebumps just standing on the start line and that is certainly a memory that we are going to take away forever.”
After skiing the sixth fastest leg, Bjornsen took the team into eighth place (+1:05.2) as she tagged to Randall for the first skate leg. Randall skied the third best time on her leg and brought tagged off to Diggins in sixth.
As the Bjørgen-and-Nilsson parry played out ahead, Diggins motored. She, too, skied the third-fastest anchor leg split and reeled in another place as she crossed the line in 52:44.8 minutes to secure fifth place.
Here’s the thing: a medal appeared out of reach for the U.S. early on. But these women make you believers. That’s not U.S. Ski & Snowboard spin. That’s not wishful fan-boy thinking. It’s incremental steps the U.S. women have made.
Every nation shows up for the Games primed. The U.S. showed up and they were fifth on Saturday. Thirty-seven-point-two seconds out of third. Who wouldn’t believe in that?
“I think for me, every time you get to put on the rely socks it’s a big honor, its a privileged,” Diggins said as she reflected on the race. “You know you’re just not racing for yourself. You are racing for your teammates, you are racing for the people who did not get named to the relay, but easily could have, and are out there cheering on the course, and you are racing for Team USA. … I got to see each of my teammates ski their hearts out. I was getting more and more fired up watching them, just like, ‘OK, it’s my turn I am going to go reel in as many people as I can,’ and then we are going to walk away proud of what we did here today because there is more to it than just medals.”
Asked after the race to expand on what the day in and day out meaning of belief is like for the women’s team, U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb elaborated on his role and that of the athletes.
“As coaches we spend a lot of time trying to tune people’s engines and try to make sure that they show up with a roaring Ferrari,” Whitcomb remarked. “But the Ferrari needs a driver and for the skier that’s the brain. The body will not go if the brain isn’t behind it and we’ve seen it time and time again where you have someone who you think is completely tuned up and prepped and ready to win a race and they’re not even in the points, and you later uncover that something had them out of balance and listing starboard and kept them off course for the day.
“So when we, as a team, first believe in one another, you then have your entire team that believes in you,” Whitcomb continued. “And that’s impossible to miss the positive effects of your team. One after the next, believing in you as a skier and you can’t help but believe more in yourself. So when you’re confident, you believe more in yourself, the body starts up really quickly and you can race the car.”
Under Whitcomb’s guidance, the U.S. nordic community has come to expect excellence for it’s women’s team. Consider that for a minute. Consider that during the early part of Randall’s career, it was a fight to even field a women’s relay team. Consider that Whitcomb chose a Ferrari as his vehicular metaphor. That metaphor works for the U.S. squad.
Whitcomb also spoke of how the race unfolded from the outset.
“The first thing that jumped out was that Russia chose the strategy of two very hot classic legs,” Whitcomb said. “That is something we were hoping didn’t occur. And it doesn’t always in championship events, it tends to, but I felt like, and I still feel like, we put together the very best team we had tonight. I have really honestly no regrets about that.”
Here’s the link to the 4 x 5 k women’s relay start list. It’s a wow-type list. The Norwegians, the Swedes and the Finns, all loaded lineups. And the Russians were seated fifth. Natalia Nepryaeva and Yulia Belorukova, both Russian skiers that have already medaled at these Games, led off the first two relay legs. They were a big unknown who pulled through for the bronze.
“It was really interesting to talk with the Russian coach on the trails as we were watching the race and confirm that they were in fact they were going to take it out hot, so we were privy to that,” Whitcomb said. “The athletes more than anybody knew what was going on. They can see the splits opening up or closing down. But as you saw in several cases, with Riita-Liisa [Roponen] from Finland, with Astrid [Uhrenholdt Jacobsen] from Norway, with Russia’s last skier on their first leg anyways, there are dents in armor here and there. We were hoping to really tear those open, and we got close but we were on the same hill as the medal. We’ve been there before and that’s frustrating. But for me, it’s fortunately more than just medals and I’m very proud of the team today.”
Canada’s relay team of Dahria Beatty, Emily Nishikawa, Cendrine Browne, Anne-Marie Comeau placed 13th (+4:50.3).
“We are racing all for each other; we are doing our very, very best,” Nishikawa said after the race. “I think our team has come a long ways. Last year at the world champs we probably had one of our best days ever [in 10th]. On a really good day we could be fighting with a lot of these teams.”
Racing continues Sunday with the men’s 4 x 10 k relay.
— Ian Tovell, Alex Kochon, Harald Zimmer, and Gabby Naranja contributed