At 19 years old and 5’4”, CXC’s Jessie Diggins isn’t all that big. But her performance at the 2011 U.S. National Championships this week has a lot of people expecting big things—and that was before Saturday.
Diggins closed out an impressive week in Rumford, ME with a storybook finish in the women’s skate sprint, coming from behind after a fall on the last rise to top Dartmouth’s Sophie Caldwell in a lunge, with APU’s Sadie Bjornsen in third.
“I think this is how the cards are supposed to fall for her,” said the U.S. Ski Team’s Matt Whitcomb, who has coached Diggins at camps and at the World Junior Championships. “It’s going to be really exciting over the next five years.”
After topping the morning’s qualifier and cruising through her quarter and semi, Diggins was right where she wanted to be in her first-ever national championship A-final, in second position behind Bjornsen and ready to make a run on the homestretch. There was just one last little rise before the final descent into the stadium.
“I moved to the right—I was going up, and someone caught my ski from behind me. I twisted and I fell, and the whole pack went by me,” she said.
With a ferocious free-skate, she somehow managed to chase her way on to the back of the group, and just slide by Caldwell in a messy sprint.
“I was feeling strong, and I was like ‘oh, man, I hope I just don’t fall, crash,’” she said. “And I did, but it ended up okay…I’m really, really happy—these are great girls to race with.”
Diggins’ lunge served as the conclusion to a fast, tight, but clean day of skate sprinting.
Temperatures in Rumford plummeted over the last few days, and the wet, gloppy snow that lay on the trails early in the week had been transformed into a hard-packed, borderline icy surface for Saturday’s races.
Times for the 1.4-kilometer sprint loop were just over three minutes in the qualifying round—more than 30 seconds faster than the women completed the same course on classic skis six days ago.
Rumford’s trails had the potential to be slick, with one turn becoming icy in the qualifier. But organizers were quick to dispatch volunteers with shovels, and the corner did not end up being a factor in the race.
Diggins looked strong in the early rounds, as did Bjornsen, APU’s Holly Brooks, Colorado’s Eliska Hajkova, and CXC’s Jennie Bender.
The finals included those first four women, as well as Caldwell and Lauren Fritz (Alaska Nordic Racing).
Bjornsen got off to a quick start, taking control of the group heading out of the stadium, then over the course’s two main climbs, and into the final descent. That was the same strategy that she employed successfully in her quarter- and semi-final heats.
Leading through a downhill always poses the risk of giving competitors a draft, but Bjornsen said that skiing from the front had
given her the ability to block out her competitors—and she hadn’t noticed any slingshot effect in practice with her APU teammates on Friday.
“It seemed like the person who came over the top of the hill in the front was going to take it in,” she said. “We didn’t really pick up on any draft yesterday.”
In the finals, though, Caldwell gave a textbook demonstration of the technique, coming through from behind Bjornsen to take over the lead as the women entered the homestretch. It looked like Caldwell was about to break through for her first national championship, no mean feat for a 20-year-old who’s also a full-time student at Darmouth.
But to claim victory, she still had to contend with Diggins, who was streaking up the lefthand side.
Diggins had the advantage of being fresh for the sprint after skipping distance races on Thursday, while Caldwell was still recovering from a big effort in the 20 k freestyle. But Caldwell said that there wasn’t much more that she could have done.
“I think the final stretch I skied as well as I could, just because of the adrenaline rush,” she said. “It’s hard to say.”
The two women went stride-for-stride for the last 50 meters, with a lunge that left most spectators suspecting a win for Diggins. But not even the athletes knew for sure, until they were informed a few minutes later. In the end, Diggins was able to claim her first-ever national title by less than a ski length.
Diggins will carry her win into the World Junior Championships in Estonia later this month. She’s currently in the middle of a post-graduate year with CXC, with plans to attend Northern Michigan University next year—but Whitcomb said that the U.S. Ski Team could be in her future.
“Both parties are very interested,” he said.
After Estonia, Whitcomb said that Diggins will travel with a few U.S. Ski Team members to a handful of races in Europe.
“She’s got some huge international opportunities coming up,” he said.
Diggins chalked up her success this season to a full-time focus on skiing, without the distractions of high school. But CXC’s assistant coach, Gus Kaeding, also credited the team’s other women with helping Diggins along.
“She’s young, and obviously talented, but she’s made some good technique changes for sure. Especially when she used to get tired, she’d ski a little sloppy, but now she’s pretty clean, pretty good technically,” he said. “The other girls have played a huge part—Caitlin [Compton] and Jennie [Bender], and Brooke Gosling…They’ve really taught her a lot—kind of how to hold it together. How to know what to do when there’s not someone there to tell you what to do. I think that’s honestly the biggest factor.”
Link to results. (Qualifying results had been posted as of late Saturday afternoon, with none yet from heats.)
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.