2018 Olympics (PyeongChang, South Korea): Freestyle team sprint
(Note: This rundown has been updated to include comments from Canadians Emily Nishikawa and Dahria Beatty.)
The medal hunt is over. In the final team event of the 2018 Winter Olympics, the U.S. women got the job done on Wednesday in PyeongChang, winning not just a medal, but the first Olympic gold in the history of U.S. cross-country skiing.
Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins teamed up in the 6 x 1.25-kilometer event, with Randall tagging Diggins in third at the final exchange, just 0.7 seconds behind Norway’s Marit Bjørgen in first and 0.5 seconds behind Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla in second. With 1.25 k to go, Diggins charged ahead on the first climb, with Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla and Sweden’s Stina Nilsson chasing her in second and third, respectively. They were about 10 seconds clear of Switzerland in fourth at the final exchange.
Falla moved into first at the bottom of the final grueling climb. Halfway up, Diggins and Nilsson jostled to position themselves in second, and over the top, Diggins slotted into third.
Riding fast skis on the downhill toward the stadium, Diggins stayed out of trouble while Nilsson nearly rode up onto Falla’s skis. While Nilsson used the draft to get into first coming out of that downhill, Diggins eyed a specific line, saw the opening between the two and took it to move into second. As Nilsson entered the finishing straight, Diggins was right there with her, even pulling into first as they came within 50 meters of the line. The gold became a reality, as Diggins outlunged Nilsson by 0.2 seconds at the finish with a time of 15:56.4 minutes, and Falla crossed 3 seconds back in third.
Gold for the U.S., silver for Sweden, bronze for Norway. With her 14th Olympic medal, Bjørgen became the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time, while Randall and Diggins earned their country’s first Olympic gold.
In the men’s 6 x 1.4 k team sprint final that followed, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo once again anchored another Norwegian victory, teaming up with Martin Johnsrud Sundby for Klæbo’s third medal of his first Olympics. With a strong second leg from Klæbo, the Norwegians gapped the field, and Sundby extended that gap to 5 seconds over Sweden by the final exchange. Klæbo rounded the final lap alone, still charging for the win and only letting up a few meters before the line to celebrate as he crossed in first with a time of 15:56.26.
Alexander Bolshunov of the Olympic Athletes from Russia pushed to catch Klæbo on the last lap and motored for silver, finishing 1.71 seconds back. He teamed up with Denis Spitsov for their second-straight silver medal of the Games (after placing second in the 4 x 10 k relay) and Spitsov’s third medal (after placing third in the 15 k freestyle).
France (Maurice Manificat and Richard Jouve) placed third (+2.02) with Jouve edging Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson by about a second for bronze, while Sweden placed fourth (+3.07) with Marcus Hellner and Halfvarsson. It was the French men’s second-straight bronze medal after placing third in the relay.
Italy (Dietmar Nöckler and Federico Pellegrino) was next across the line in fifth place, 18.55 seconds out of first, while the U.S. men (Erik Bjornsen and Simi Hamilton) followed in sixth (+20.72). Bjornsen crashed shortly after the start of the third leg (his second leg) after skiing onto the tails of Nöckler’s skis up the first climb out of the stadium. That put the American in last place near the bottom of the hill, but Bjornsen rebounded to tag off in sixth, just 3.2 seconds out of first. Hamilton slipped to eighth and 8.3 seconds back on the next leg, and by the last lap, it was Hamilton chasing Pellegrino for fifth place, which Italy ultimately took about 2 seconds ahead of him at the finish.
Canada’s Len Valjas and Alex Harvey finished eighth (+35.6), with Harvey holding off Finland in ninth by half a second at the line, after slipping as far back as 10th on Valjas’s second leg.
Earlier in the day, the Norwegian men and women, Russian men, and American women each won their semifinal heats as the field was narrowed to ten teams for each final.
In the first women’s semifinal, Bjørgen and Falla posted an easy win by 6.6 seconds. Switzerland’s Nadine Fähndrich and Laurien van der Graaff bested Slovenia’s Alenka Cebasek and Anamarija Lampic for second place.
In the second semifinal, Randall and Diggins claimed the win, with Kalla and Nilsson finishing second, just 0.7 seconds back; Diggins and Nilsson didn’t sprint for bragging rights, seemingly saving energy for the final. Russia’s Natalia Nepryaeva and Yulia Belorukova finished third (+2.1).
Only the top two finishers from each semifinal automatically advance to the final, but Slovenia and Russia qualified as “lucky losers” based on their time. Also qualifying for the final were Finland (Mari Laukkanen and Krista Parmakoski), Poland (Justyna Kowalczyk and Sylvia Jasckowiec), France (Aurore Jean and Coraline Hugue), and Germany (Nicole Fessel and Sandra Ringwald).
The Canadian women’s team of Emily Nishikawa and Dahria Beatty finished seventh in the second semifinal, and were two spots out of making the final (the Czech Republic had a faster time than the Canadians but also did not advance).
“The first four legs we were right in there with the group,” Nishikawa told FasterSkier after their semifinal. “I think our second heat was quite a strong heat, it stayed together until the fifth leg. That’s where I blew up a little bit, but I did everything I could. … Dahria skied amazingly well, she was able to still catch Italy again on the sixth leg.”
“We knew that the first three, four teams would be quite strong: USA, Sweden, Russia and Finland,” Beatty said. “So we knew everyone else, we could ski with them in the group, so we were trying to stay with that kind of middle group ’cause we knew five or six would probably be qualifying from our heat. … I think we did a really good job of skiing a race where we were right in there. … I think we came something like 11 seconds short of what we needed…
“Even though we didn’t qualify it was nice to be able to go catch one team on the last lap there and finish strong,” Beatty added. “Our coaches were cheering amazing out there, and had some cheering from the American coaches, too. So there was a lot of motivation on the course to really fight to the line.”
In the men’s semifinals, Russia’s Spitsov and Bolshunov and Sweden’s Hellner and Halfvarsson at some points appeared to be running away with the first heat, but by the finish Germany (Sebastian Eisenlauer and Thomas Bing) and Finland (Martti Jylhä and Ristomatti Hakola) were within three seconds in third and fourth.
For the U.S., Bjornsen took charge of the second semifinal on the fifth lap, and Hamilton kept the lead into the final downhill. Klæbo passed him late in the game and claimed the win along with teammate Sundby, and Hamilton appeared unconcerned as Jouve passed him in the finishing straight as well to put France (with Manificat) in second; based on time, the U.S. advanced as a lucky loser.
Also in the men’s final were Italy (Nöckler and Pellegrino), Canada (Valjas and Alex Harvey) — who finished fifth in the second semifinal — and the Czech Republic (Martin Jaks and Ales Razym).