Much has been said about the string of breakthrough performances by the U.S. women on the World Cup this season, but on Sunday, the entire team deserved the credit for putting together an historic day for the U.S. Led by Kikkan Randall in 15th, the U.S. placed a total of five athletes in the points in the 10 and 15 k classic races in Otepää, Estonia.
Jessie Diggins, in her first distance race on the World Cup of her career, was 12.4 seconds behind Randall in 18th. Liz Stephen finished just 11.5 seconds behind Diggins in 21st.
On the men’s side, World Cup veteran Kris Freeman put together a 22nd-place performance despite battling high blood sugar, and Noah Hoffman cracked the top-30 for the first time in his career in 26th, 16.9 seconds behind his teammate.
The last time the U.S. put more athletes in the top 30 at a European World Cup was in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia in 1983.
“You always want to have your best days on the hardest course, and today we did that,” said USST women’s coach Matt Whitcomb. More than one athlete remarked that the Otepää distance course was the hardest one on the World Cup, which features roughly 1300 feet of total climbing for the women’s 10 k and nearly 2000 feet in the men’s 15 k.
“It was a pure test of fitness, but also a really good test of our waxing staff,” said Whitcomb. “The conditions were a little greasy, and the hills were enormous, so we had to find that right balance between plenty of kick and plenty of speed.”
For the most part, U.S. athletes picked skis that met that balance, but no amount of grip in the world would have made skiing up the bottom part of a jumping hill much easier.
“It wasn’t as bad as I think it looked on the warm up; it skis better at race pace,” said Randall.
Regardless, she added “it was definitely challenging.”
Randall’s plan from the start was to build into her race and come on strong in the second half. Looking at the splits, she did just that—at the first time check at 2.5 k, she sat in 21st, and steadily moved up to 15th at 7.5 k, holding the position to the finish.
Diggins, in her first World Cup distance race, went out in what Whitcomb called a “spastic” fashion, but managed to settle into a more consistent and manageable pace to finish an impressive 18th.
From where he was standing with the coaches at the top of the jumping hill, Whitcomb thought it looked as though Diggins would be in the running for the reverse podium rather than a top 20.
“She skied a decent first kilometer and a half, then tried to do things differently when all she had to do was keep things the same,” said Whitcomb.
Despite going out “a little too hard,” Diggins rallied, and reeled in the few places she lost on the second lap. Her only objective on Sunday had been to play around with pacing, and her experience in Otepää undoubtedly taught her something.
“This being my first distance race on the World Cup, I had no expectations going into it,” Diggins wrote in an email. “I just wanted to go out and ski the course as best I could.”
Stephen’s performance, meanwhile, was enough to secure her spot in the World Cup Red Group for the next race period. Her 21st-placefinish was a one-place improvement over her best classic race of the season prior to Sunday.
On the men’s side, Freeman led the way in 22nd, which he qualified as “decent” in light of his struggle with high blood sugar all of Sunday.
“I was nervous, and nerves physiologically raise your blood-sugar,” said Freeman, who fought to keep his levels down all morning. “It’s impossible to qualify how much that hurts me.”
Though 22nd is one of the better results this season, it’s not where he wants to be finishing.
“I’m frustrated for what could have been, but I’ve got to be happy for one of my better races this year,” said Freeman.
Taking the past two weeks off of racing helped him on Sunday, and Freeman is hopeful that the break in the World Cup schedule coming up will again get him recharged and ready for Moscow, Russia in two weeks time.
Thrilled to be joining Freeman in the top 30 for the first time was Hoffman, who exercised unusual restraint early in the 15 k so that he would have the energy to turn it up at the end.
In an email on Saturday, Hoffman described clearly his plan for Sunday: “I am very focused on executing and starting off under control. When I talk to you tomorrow, I won’t have to tell you I went out too hard! It’s just not going to happen!”
As his splits show, Hoffman was true to his word. At the first timing check-point, he clocked the 36th-fastest time. By 7.5 k, he’d moved up ten places.
Scoring his first World Cup points was “a big goal of mine,” wrote Hoffman on Sunday. “I hope this is something I can build on and do more for the remainder of this season.”
Whitcomb was complimentary of Hoffman’s breakthrough.
“He tried a new pacing strategy today, known as: pacing,” he said.
“It was exciting to see him ski relaxed and turn it up,” Whitcomb continued. “It was a little Freeman-esque, on Kris’s good days.”
Skiing just outside the top 30, but still in solidly good form, was Sadie Bjornsen in 34th, who for the second day in a row just missed out on the points.
After watching the entirety of U.S. Nationals from the sidelines due to illness, Bjornsen hadn’t been in a distance race since the Davos World Cup.
She picked quite the course to come back on, and admitted to being a little scared of it before she started.
“As I started to go though, I enjoyed how bad it hurt,” Bjornsen explained.
“When you sit on the sidelines like I did all through Nationals, you are almost desperate to get that feeling of hurt. It’s a funny thing, but every ski racer is the same in that manner.”
As for her recent streak of not-quite-top-30 finishes, she admitted to frustration, but knows to be patient.
“When I finally start feeling back to good form, I hope I will be able to reach it,” she wrote.
“Sometimes it’s hard…when your teammate are all doing top twenties, and so well, but then you have to step back and remember one foot in front of the next, even though I would rather be skipping.”
Ida Sargent finished in 40th, 26.0 seconds behind Bjornsen, which is roughly on par with her best classic distance World Cups earlier this season—38th in the Rogla 10 k mass start.
On the heels of his best sprint result this winter, Andy Newell didn’t fare quite as well in the 15 k, finishing 49th.
With the incredibly steep hills, Newell explained, picking just the right pair of skis was critical to making it efficiently around the course.
“I think I made the wrong choice and didn’t have enough kick, and that’s something I for sure need to work on for distance races,” said Newell.
Most of his classic skis are better suited for setting in the snow with the force he sprints with, Newell explained.
“One problem I’m having is that I ski with so much more power during sprint races that a lot of my skis are flexed a certain way. So I can kick them fine doing accelerations warming up but once I start racing they’re slick when moving at a slower speed. So I’m learning and trying to improve on that,” said Newell.
Mike Sinnott finished just behind Newell place-wise, but in a mark of just how strung out the field was in Otepää, the difference between 49th and 50th was 41.7 seconds.
The USST travels to Ramsau, Austria on Monday, where they will train for the two weeks they have off until the next World Cup in Moscow, Russia. Tad Elliott will join them on Thursday, along with Sylvan Ellefson, who earned the first World Cup start rights of his career by being the Period 2 SuperTour leader.
Topher Sabot contributed reporting.
Thanks to Joran Elias of Statistical Skier for confirming that Sunday was the first time the U.S. put as many as five athletes in the top 30 of a European World Cup post-1992, which is as far back as FIS results are digitized. An earlier version of this article neglected to qualify the statistic as applying to years since 1992; six U.S. men placed in the top 30 in a Sarajevo World Cup in 1983. We apologize for the mistake.