Last winter, Jessie Diggins was just another up-and-coming American cross-country skier.
At U.S. Nationals, she raced to a solid-but-unspectacular ninth place in the classic sprint, and at the 2010 World Junior Championships in Germany, her top finish was a 25th place, in the 10 k pursuit.
What a difference a year makes.
After collecting her first national title earlier this month, and only a couple of days removed from illness, Diggins placed seventh in the World Junior Championships 5 k freestyle in Otepaa, Estonia on Wednesday, confirming that she has completed a transformation into one of the best young skiers on the planet.
Her development over the past season has been impressive even by Diggins’ own high standards—if someone had told her a year ago that she’d be this close to the top at World Juniors, “I would have looked around for the camera, to see if I was being punked,” she said.
After two circuits of an undulating 2.5 k course, Diggins finished some 28 seconds down on winner Ragnhild Haga, who led a Norwegian sweep of the top four places. Kari Oeyre Slind was second, five-and-a-half seconds behind, with pre-race favorite Heidi Weng in third.
Though impressive, Norway’s results were on par with last year, when their women, led by Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg, swept the podium in the 10 k pursuit.
“They had the triple last year as well, and I knew we had a strong team,” Haga said. “I didn’t expect it, but I’m not so surprised.”
Norway’s results may not have been unprecedented, but Diggins’ finish was the first top-10 for the American juniors since Liz Stephen was seventh in 2007 in Tarvisio, Italy.
After her national title earlier this month, there were certainly some expectations on Diggins coming into the races in Estonia. But she caught a cold in her first few days in Europe, and had an uphill battle just to get to the start line on Wednesday.
“I ended up taking four days off, and yesterday I skied for the first time,” she said. “I was feeling super-nervous, because I’d just been laying in bed the last few days, twiddling my thumbs.”
But from the start, she didn’t seem to be missing much juice—after her first lap, Diggins was sitting sixth, less than a second out of the top five.
The women’s 2.5 k course suited her, she said, with some steep climbs, as well as plenty of gradual terrain, and conditions that might have confounded some of her competitors, according to Matt Whitcomb, the leader of the U.S. team.
“The snow was a little bit slower than it has been,” he said. “Those areas that were recovery on the faster days were work today, and I think that suits the fitter athletes—among which Jessie is.”
Over the past year, Diggins has put a lot of work into her technique, and made some big strides. She still isn’t the prettiest skier—her energetic movements sometimes bubble into the occasional awkward angle and stray body part—but Whitcomb said that she’s improved to the point where “technique is not limiting her out there.”
When she crossed the finish line, Diggins was sitting in third, and had to suffer a few uncomfortable minutes of being pushed downward by later starters.
“Seeing myself slowly get knocked off the podium was kind of disappointing, but still, a top 10 is huge for me,” she said.
The illness, she added, didn’t end up being too much of a factor; in fact, she speculated, it might have helped.
“Maybe…it ended up being good, because I think I have a tendency to not back off like I should before a race,” she said. “When I
finally did get to be on snow, I was like, ‘yes!’”
Diggins may have made a big jump in the last year, but she wasn’t the only woman in the junior field to do so. Haga, the winner, had a top finish of ninth at last year’s championships in Germany, and said that she “absolutely did not expect to be on the podium.”
After her first lap, she sat in third place, four seconds behind her teammate Weng and one behind Slind.
Weng was the heavy favorite in the race, having won one last winter’s races in Germay—as team doctor Kjell-Vegard Mikland put it, she was “the big star” among the Norwegian women.
But Weng, Mykland said, had pushed a little too hard in her training during the summer. Blood tests revealed high levels of stress hormones, and she had to back off over the past three or four months.
She couldn’t quite sustain her strong first lap, and while a bronze medal is nothing to scoff at, Weng seemed crushed—she couldn’t muster a shred of a smile for the podium ceremony.
Haga, meanwhile, said that her plan had been to save some power for her second loop, intending to make up time on the flats and descents from the top of the climb at the far point of the course. It worked, as she reversed her deficit, ultimately finishing six seconds up on Slind and eight up on Weng.
She crossed the line as the leader, but had to endure a wait of exactly three-and-a-half minutes—the gap between her start time and Weng’s—before the victory was confirmed by the video board, setting off a jubilant shouting fit.
“Last year, my best result was ninth, and I just wanted to improve that. A medal was more than enough for me today, and when they said I was the world champion, it was surreal,” she said.
Along with Slind and Weng, Haga is a member of the Norwegian junior team, which is coached by Roar Hjelmeset—Odd-Bjoern’s brother—and meets once a month for training camps. Slind and Haga are roommates at a school in Lillehammer, and they train a lot together—“but not too much,” Slind said.
Other North American results included Canadian Janelle Greer in 35th—a result that the country’s team leader, Eric de Nys, called “a pretty good day.”
“It’s just small fish coming into a big pool,” he said.
American Joanne Reid was 36th, Heidi Widmer (CAN) 45th, Heather Mehain (CAN) 47th, Annika Hicks (CAN) 56th, Kinsey Loan (USA) 68th, and Isabel Caldwell (USA) 70th.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.