From a clinical standpoint, the women’s 4 x 5-kilometer relay in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, on Sunday became a time trial for the Norwegian women. That TT began 2.5 k into the first leg, as Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg came through the stadium for her second lap, 0.4 seconds back in second place, behind Finland’s Anne Kyllönen. By the time Østberg tagged off to Heidi Weng, she had a 27.5-second gap on the next-closest team. The combination of the four Norwegian speedsters, Østberg, Weng, Therese Johaug, and Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, won the relay in 50:17.2. Norway, with Sunday’s win, extended their unbeaten relay streak to 10.
But sport, at it’s best, is about drama and emotion. That type of racing belonged to the U.S. women’s relay team.
With a combined effort from Sophie Caldwell, Sadie Bjornsen, Liz Stephen, and Jessie Diggins, the U.S. women’s team placed second in a relay for the first time, after having reached the podium three times before in third. Diggins anchored them to the next step up, finishing 42.1 seconds after Norway and 13.8 seconds ahead of Finland, the team that beat them for second in the last World Cup relay in Lillehammer, Norway. On Sunday, Finland fell off the U.S. pace and settled for third, 55.9 seconds behind Norway. (In the last three World Cup relays, Finland has finished second to Norway.)
Whether or not it was considered an upset is debatable, as podiums for the U.S. women’s relay team have become a staple of their success. But anytime a relay is on the schedule, they are now considered podium favorites. Of the last five women’s World Cup relays, Sunday marked the Americans’ fourth podium.
Four Legs to Go
The newest addition to the relay, Caldwell skied the opening “scramble” classic leg, keeping the U.S. in contention and podium within sight.
Initially, Germany’s Denise Herrmann and Finland’s Kyllönen set the pace, with a large group of trailing skiers in their draft. Caldwell came through the 2.5 k mark in sixth place, 1.2 seconds back — striding within a long line of teams about to be steadily broken apart.
Through the stadium, Østberg led a group of nine teams, all within 1.6 seconds of the lead. This is when Østberg made her move, showing her strength at the front. Half a kilometer later, Caldwell was gapped by 7.8 seconds. The U.S. Ski Team (USST) sprinter remained in a tight group, which included Germany I, Finland, Germany II, and Sweden, with the remaining teams following within sight.
“I assumed that someone was gonna start pushing the pace at some point, but I didn’t anticipate [Østberg] taking off at that speed,” Caldwell recalled during a phone interview with the rest of her relay teammates. “I knew that, while it would’ve been awesome to try to keep up with her, trying to keep up with her and then imploding would’ve been a lot worse than trying to stay with that second-place group and coming in in a solid position. So instead I just focused on staying with those next girls and trying to hold off the people behind us.”
U.S. Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb has shepherded the team along as podiums and individual top-20 results have become regular occurrences in recent years. In a phone interview on Sunday, he reduced the team’s relay strategy to what he referred to as a game of contact.
“When you can hand off to your teammate with one of the key players in contact with you, you do them a huge favor,” he said. “They can just hop in the draft or work with that team … It’s a big piece of relay. It’s not just head down, hammer. You have to know when to hammer, when to strategically sit in and recover, and when to attack.”
Caldwell kept contact and pace, keeping her sight on the relay’s long-term endgame. She tagged off to Bjornsen in third place, right there with Germany I in second, and 27.9 seconds behind Norway.
Next up, Bjornsen
According to Whitcomb, Bjornsen’s classic leg proved to be another turning point.
“When Sadie got tagged off in the position that Sophie handed it to her, it was just a sensation of confidence, knowing that Sadie was no longer chasing, she was going to be commanding with Finland,” he said. “And they skied a pretty exciting race. When one was going a little bit too slow, the other one would attack and they just spent the whole race trading attacks.”
Bjornsen skied a leg that provided a simpler overall narrative — her efforts made it a two-team race for second. She lead the hunt early on, setting a tone that her effort would make a statement. At each of her intermediate time checks, Bjornsen, working with Finland’s Krista Parmakoski, broke apart the chase. First the two German teams fell seven seconds back at 2.5 k, halfway through that leg. Half a kilometer later, Germany’s first and second teams were 11 and 14 seconds out of third, respectively.
“I just tried to go out and stay a little more relaxed in the beginning, but then take the chance to try to break some of the people that were skiing in our group,” Bjornsen said. “Krista [Parmakoski] is one of the better classic skiers, so I was thinking to just sort of work together with her and make some time on those girls behind us and hopefully make some time on the one girl [Weng] in front of us as well. It ended up going really well.
“That’s the cool thing about a relay day, you’re not racing for yourself. You’re just finding all these crazy extra gears,” she added.
At the second exchange, where Bjornsen tagged off to Stephen, Norway lead by 24.5 seconds, while Finland came through in second (+24.5) and the U.S. just 1.2 seconds farther back in third.
Stephen’s skate leg was a point where the team could get comfortable with their odds for a podium, or make a kill-shot. With a high-tempo, head down, grind-it-out pace, Stephen kept the pressure on Finland’s Riitta-Liisa Roponen, and distanced any teams with thoughts of working their way back into podium contention. Three kilometers into her leg on the course’s biggest climb, Stephen took charge; she put two seconds into Roponen, but from the looks of Stephen’s determination, it might as well have been twenty. Stephen had broken Roponen down — the Finn had the look of a hanger-on.
With three top 20’s this season (including 19th overall in the Tour de Ski), it can be argued that Stephen should be popping top 10’s in the World Cup’s more demanding distance races. This season, something just hadn’t clicked for the 29-year-old team veteran.
“I think I’m beginning to feel a little bit better physically, and kind of like these girls were saying, it’s a little different when it’s a relay,” Stephen said. “In any other race, you have to find your own confidence in yourself and in the relay, you find confidence in the other girls. And the fact that we’re handed off in second or third or whatever it was at that moment, that’s confidence in itself. I’ve been struggling finding that a little bit since part of the season, for me individually, but today I was just working off their confidence.
“I was determined today,” she added. “You never want to be somebody that’s handed off third in the relay and you blow up. So definitely there’s a little extra motivation there. I tried to ski a smartly paced relay leg. I have a tendency to go flying like a bat out of hell. So Riita-Liisa and I worked together for a lap and then the second lap, you do what you can.”
Stephen handed Diggins a 5-second margin over the Finns at the final exchange.
The Difference Maker
Jacobsen anchored Norway’s team. Like the seasoned veteran that she is, she never relented, — skiing the fastest skate leg of the day, even besting Johaug’s third-leg time by 16.6 seconds. Out in front, but within site of Diggins on the straights, Norway’s top spot remained secure.
Diggins on the other hand, skated out of the exchange zone with Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen close behind. Her first-lap-strategy, go full gas — and she did so a day after achieving her second-career individual podium in the 10 k freestyle.
“On a windy course like this, my strategy was, if I can put time into [Niskanen] right off the bat, like in the first 3 k and totally drop her, then that’s it. That will decide it right there because when you can’t see someone, that is incredibly mentally challenging,” the 24-year-old Diggins said. “So my goal was to just put the hammer down right away, get far enough that she thinks she has no way of getting to me and then settle in. And the second lap I was just trying to ski very carefully. Like, OK, don’t fall, don’t trip, don’t make any bobbles, because if I can just get across the finish line, we’ve got it. I just have to ski cleanly and make no mistakes.”
Diggins made no mistakes.
In the end, Diggins celebrated across the line with several elated fist pumps before her three teammates surrounded her with a group hug. The U.S. team finished in 50:59.3, 42 seconds behind the Norwegian winners and nearly 14 seconds clear of Finland in third.
“We belong in the race for those medals just as much as any other nation and I think we’re all starting to ski that way,” Diggins reflected.
In December, when the U.S. women placed third in the last World Cup relay in Lillehammer, Rosie Brennan skied the scramble leg. With Caldwell’s success on Sunday’s first leg, Whitcomb has options.
“With Sophie, it was one of the interesting components of today,” he reflected. “We had a really difficult decision to choose between Rosie and Sophie for the classic leg. I do believe that we would have been on the podium with Rosie, I know she could have skied a great leg. We just felt that this course and conditions really suited Sophie. But it was one of those things we could have gone either way on. So with Soph, we just talked about conserving as much as possible, using the corners to position herself near the front third of the pack, and to just have a good time out there.
“She’s a racer, she knows she needs to stay in contact, she knows when Norway makes an incredibly decisive move, whether that move is for her or not,” Whitcomb continued. “I think she skied a really brilliant race today, that was a key component in our success.”
Caldwell skied the third-fastest scramble leg. Bjornsen skied the second-fastest time among the second-leg skiers, even 2.2 seconds faster than Weng, who was roaring off the front. For Stephen and Diggins — they both posted the second-fastest times for their respective legs as well. (Diggins’ 5 k time of 11:48.2, was second overall for skaters. To put that in perspective, Johaug’s 5 k split took 11:55.2.)
The Canadian Side
Sunday’s race was also the first time Canada has fielded a women’s relay since 2009. On that day, the team did not finish.
In Nove Mesto, it was the first World Cup relay for all four women. Emily Nishikawa, Dahria Beatty, Cendrine Browne, and Maya Macisaac-Jones skied to 12th place (+5:02.4).
Chris Jeffries, head coach of the Alberta World Cup Academy who assisted the Canadians the last two World Cup weekends, wrote in an email that this was a solid stepping stone for their women’s program.
“Really happy we could get these girls into a team event. Message to them before the race is that this is the beginning, not the end,” he wrote. “We have a very young group of female skiers in Canada, and a great racer in Emily to help lead them forward on the world stage.”
Nishikawa opened for the team on Sunday, tagging Beatty, also of the senior national development team, in seventh, 45.3 seconds back. While Beatty slipped to 12th, 2:21.8 behind at 10 k, another development-team skier, Browne brought them back to 11th (+3:05.9). MacIsaac-Jones (Rocky Mountain Racers) anchored them to 12th.
“We knew it was going to be tough, 3 of the 5 girls were not healthy this week with colds, and you need 100% health if you are a development skier on the World Cup to have a good result,” Jeffries wrote. “Both Emily and Cendrine have been healthy, and both put up very strong races today. Emily fought hard and made up a lot of spots in the second half of her leg, but got taken down entering the exchange and lost contact. Cendrine put together what I though was one of her best races ever, really close in time to the top girls. We have a lot of hope for future women’s teams in the next few years.”
— Dahria Beatty (@_dahria) January 24, 2016
What about Germany and Sweden?
On the first lap of the final leg, Nicole Fessel skiing for Germany’s first team and Sweden’s Marika Sundin literally went astray. About 24 seconds out of third in fourth and fifth, respectively, and a minute behind Norway, Fessel led Sundin as they went off course, following the classic track and missing the skate turn. Several meters later, they realized their mistake (see the video on Norway’s TV2). Fessel estimated in a post-race interview with ARD that it cost them 30 seconds.
The next time through the stadium, with 2.5 k to go, they were about a minute out of the fight for the podium. Ultimately, Fessel finished fourth for Germany I, a minute out of third and 1:56.1 behind Norway. Sundin placed fifth for Sweden (+2:14.9).
World Cup racing takes a break until Feb. 3, when men’s and women’s sprints will be held in Drammen, Norway. The next distance events will take place Feb. 6-7 in Oslo, Norway.
— Alex Kochon and Gabby Naranja contributed reporting