Note: This article has been updated to include the U.S. women’s third-place finish at the Lillehammer World Cup in Dec. 2013.
Amidst stunning conditions of bright sun and a dangerously icy track at the Birkebeiner Stadium in Lillehammer, Norway, the Norwegian women’s all-star first relay team of Maiken Caspersen Falla, Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, Therese Johaug, and Heidi Weng, notched another seemingly effortless victory in the women’s 4 x 5-kilometer World Cup relay on Sunday.
Taking the win by almost two minutes over second place Finland’s Krista Parmakoski, Kerttu Niskanen, Laura Mononen, and Anne Kyllönen, the Norwegians may have won the race, but the Americans stole the show.
As Norway’s first team reveled in victory, they had to stop their celebratory hugs to turn and witness the crowd roar in both surprise, and applause, as the U.S. Ski Team’s Jessie Diggins flew past Ragnhild Haga of Norway’s second team, careened down the final hill, into the finishing stretch, snatching the final podium spot from Haga by 1.4 seconds.
Diggins crossed the finish line and let out a scream of elation, thrilled for the U.S. women’s first relay podium in two years. It was the third time in relay history the U.S. women have reached the podium, according to USSA.
Approaching the top of the last short climb before the stadium, Diggins saw a tall figure jumping up and down, swinging their poles in circles around their head, “like a cowboy,” she recalled in a post-race group phone interview with her teammates: Rosie Brennan, Sadie Bjornsen and Liz Stephen.
It was U.S. Ski Team (USST) Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb, and he was giving her the go-ahead to go for it in the final meters. “I was like, ‘Yes, this is what I live for!’ … and I just hammered,” she said.
On a day where the downhills appeared to equal a life or death decisions on bulletproof ice and uphills hurt just as bad as the day before, Team USA’s women showed the world once again they can ski with the best. Knowing this drive and the precarious track conditions, USST Head Coach Chris Grover explained the prerace strategy as the following:
“In this case, we knew that is was going to be an absolute battle and that anything was possible, so one strategy was just to keep our head in the game and know that at times we might be up and that at other times we might be down, but to just keep our heads in the game and to keep fighting back and fighting back,” he said.
After the first leg, the U.S. team already had its work cut out for them.
Brennan skied smooth through the first large climb at 1.2 k, moving through the time check on the heels of Norway’s Falla and Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter. From there, she lost the pace on the downhills.
On the phone, Brennan explained that they, “woke up to some extremely icy snow conditions,” and she “was quite terrified to be honest.” However, her uphill pace was not far from the leaders’ and she was able to hand off “close enough for these girls [her teammates] to have somebody in sight to go chase.”
At the first exchange Norway’s second-team skier, Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, led Falla of Norway I by 6.1 seconds, closely followed by Ingemarsdotter of Sweden and Parmakoski of Finland. Brennan tagged Bjornsen for the second classic leg in seventh, 49 seconds back from Jacobsen.
From there the race for first appeared over. Norway’s Østberg dropped the hammer, skiing away from Finland and Norway II, putting them 21.5 and 36.6 seconds down at the second exchange.
For Team USA and Bjornsen, the second leg meant hanging tough and staying upright. Bjornsen said she “got a little over excited at the beginning and tried to close the gap to Germany and Russia in the first k.” She spent the “next 2.5 k trying to hold on for dear life,” recover, and more importantly, make it safely down the icy hills with “completely flooded legs.”
When asked how she managed to hang on despite the excitedly fast start, Bjornsen painted a target on the back of the Norwegians and Swedes.
“Anytime you see a red [Norway] or white [Sweden] suit, man, you just find another gear because those are the two people you’re gunning for normally,” she said.
Before handing off to Stephen, the first skate leg, Bjornsen skied the fifth-fastest second leg, and tagged off 1:29.9 behind the Norwegian leaders, in a pack with Russia’s second team (+1:21.3), Germany (+1:21.7), Sweden (+1:23.5).
Halfway through the first skate leg, Norway II, skiing in third place, looked vulnerable. Falling from only 36.6 seconds back at the exchange to 1:16.0 at the 2.5 k mark; Stephen was also closing the gap, now only down 31.5 seconds to third place.
“I was focused on the uphills. This course couldn’t be much better for someone like me who likes to climb,” Stephen said. “My goal was to just drop them on the first uphill [Germany and Russia].”
Stephen explained her strategy going into her leg. Skiing the third-fastest third leg, she mimicked Bjornsen’s motivation, “You see the white suit and you go for that, and when you look up and see a red suit, you really go!” Closing out her 5 k, the red suit of Norway’s second team hovered a tantalizing 21 seconds away.
At the front, Johaug showed her form from the previous day, skiing the fastest third leg and extending Norway’s lead to 1:04 over Finland at the final exchange.
Second-place Finland continued to ski in no-man’s land, maintaining its distance ahead third — 45.5 seconds at the third exchange — but unable to gain ground on Johaug, dropping to over a minute back at 1:04.
In the battle for third, Stephen handed off to Diggins in fifth, 3.6 seconds behind defending Olympic and World Championship gold medalist Charlotte Kalla.
Diggins quickly passed Kalla up the long climb on the first of two laps, and focused on Haga for the second lap.
Just over 3 k into her race, Diggins caught Haga and the two skied neck and neck.
Diggins dropped her on the last big uphill. “I didn’t look back so I had no idea if she was there or not,” she said.
Coming in toward the stadium, Diggins described the atmosphere as “a total adrenaline rush. The people on that last hill were so loud because I was coming in with a Norwegian. You’re in so much pain, but you just can’t feel anything…”
Diggins closed out the fourth leg with the second-fastest skate leg of the day and fastest final lap of any team.
The U.S. women ended up third, their best result in a four-person relay since Kikkan Randall, Bjornsen, Stephen, and Diggins placed third in the 2013 Lillehammer World Cup relay two seasons ago. Before that, Holly Brooks, Randall, Stephen, and Diggins broke through with the first U.S. relay podium at the November 2012 World Cup relay in Gallivare, Sweden.
“It speaks volumes to do it here,” Bjornsen said. “We have this belief that it can be any number of the four people on this relay team and it’s totally possible.”
“We’re definitely a team that’s known for our skating on the women’s side — we saw that yesterday in the skiathlon,” Grover said. The U.S. had four women in the top 30. “We know that if we can be close in classic then we can really have a chance in the last couple legs of skating to get to the podium.”
He added that the service team nailed the wax. “We had incredible skis, incredible kick, fantastic glide, for sure, some of the best skis in the field today, both for the women and for the men,” Grover said. “It was really a big effort not only from the group of women and the guys, but also from the entire staff. I’m super proud of everybody performed today.”
What was perhaps most important to the four women was the fact that they recognized not all of them had perfect days.
“Maybe it wasn’t perfect; it was just solid,” Stephen said, adding that both Norway and Finland are “catch-able” — not out of reach.
“Today was really special. I’m so proud of these girls,” Stephen added. “I can really relate to Rosie’s fear of downhills; I think we’re both struggling on it … and I’m really proud of her for that. … When you put relay socks on Jessie Diggins, it’s like a different person. It’s a really fun thing for me to touch her butt and watch her go. Sadie… she kicks ass and is just so solid.
“It’s a really fun team; it’s changed. There’s been a few members changing over the years, but being back on the podium, it’s a real thing to stand on that block and to get a brick of cheese that weighs more than half your team together.”
— Alex Kochon and Katie Madden contributed reporting