Feisty, unintimidated, and encouraging—if ultimately overmatched.
That’s probably the best way to describe Jessie Diggins’ effort at World Championships on Thursday, in which she anchored the U.S. women to a ninth-place finish in the 4×5 k relay.
It’s also an apt description of the performance of the entire U.S. team, which fought hard to its best World Championships women’s relay result in over a decade, but was ultimately left three minutes behind the winning Norwegians.
“I was like, ‘okay—so, there’s Marit Bjoergen (NOR), Charlotte Kalla (SWE), whoever else was anchoring their teams,’” Diggins said. “I was like, ‘Wow—this is going to be really fast.’ But it ended up being really good.’”
Diggins ended up just 40 seconds down on Bjoergen over her five-kilometer anchor leg. It’s still a decent amount of ground to make up—especially given the fact that the Norwegian slowed to celebrate in the stadium—but the result was competitive with a few World Cup veterans, like Germany’s Nicole Fessel and even Finland’s Krista Lahteenmaki.
Her third race in Oslo, Diggins’ relay was “her third home run in my book,” said Chris Grover, the U.S. head coach.
“With the women’s team, I think we’ve got some names on there for the future for the U.S.A.,” Grover said. “I can see us in three years, if we do things right, starting to get really competitive by the time we get to Sochi.”
Along with Liz Stephen, Diggins was one of two U.S. skiers who had solid races in Oslo. But for leadoff skier Kikkan Randall, who scrambled, things weren’t as smooth.
For the second straight day, a thick fog surrounded the courses at the Holmenkoll venue, but this time, the sun was poking through occasionally, and conditions varied on different parts of the track. On the first big climb of Randall’s leg, her skis iced up badly, leaving her with no glide.
“It was like I’d fallen over or something,” she said. “I could just feel the layer underneath, and I was just trying to kick, and it wasn’t going anywhere. I was just trying not to fall on my face.”
By the time she finally dislodged the ice, Randall was in dead last of 14 teams, leaving her with a lot of work to do. She eventually reeled back the pack and caught a few teams, but despite testing her skis around the whole course prior to the race, she was still fighting them in a number of places—not to mention her body, too.
“Just trying to push into the next gear, I just didn’t have it today,” she said. “Kind of the same feelings I’ve been fighting the last couple of races. I just don’t have that power behind the distance pace.”
While it wasn’t great, Randall’s leg was still only 40 seconds off the lead, and she tagged off to Holly Brooks in eighth, tight with the Russian and Japanese teams.
Brooks stayed tight with Alija Iksanova (RUS), but she wasn’t quite a match for Japan’s Masako Ishida, who regularly finishes in the top 10 on the World Cup.
After being caught by Slovenia’s Petra Majdic and Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk, who came from behind, Brooks skied with the pair for a bit, but as she put it in an e-mail, “the two of them seemed to be having their own race.”
By the tag, Brooks had lost 1:20 to Justyna Kowalczyk, who had the fastest split of the leg—and she tagged off with the Americans in 11th.
Then, Stephen took over. Thanks to a tough course that favored her small frame, and a pair of fast skis, she lost less than 40 seconds to Russia’s Yulia Tchekaleva, who had the fastest time of the leg, and was able to reel in Kazakhstan before handing off to Diggins for the last leg.
For the 19-year-old Minnesotan, the five-kilometer loop was her last in a breakout European campaign–one that’s been ongoing since the World Junior Championships in Estonia in late January.
Originally, Diggins was going to get just one start in Oslo, in the sprint, but when her racing picked up steam, she ended up with three. After cracking the sprint heats and placing 28th in the 15 k pursuit, she earned a “nerve-wracking” spot on the relay squad, where she acquitted herself as well as any of the other American women.
A Kazakh woman caught up on one of the last climbs, but Diggins was able to shake her heading back down into the stadium. While she ran out of room to pass a fading Poland, Diggins did make up a 30-second gap to the Japanese anchor, Michito Kashiwabara, who has multiple top-10 finishes at World Juniors on her resume.
“What a competitor,” Grover said. “Every race for her here has been fantastic.”
As for Diggins’ whole European stint—which included World Juniors in Estonia, domestic-level European races, World Cups in Norway, and the competitions in Oslo—Grover said it was ideal.
“I think it’s been a really good mix of competitions that are really appropriate for her level, plus competitions that are above her level,” he said. “So, I think it’s a good time for her to start to head home…and do some domestic racing.”
Domestic racing is exactly what Diggins will get—she’s flying back to Minnesota to compete in the Junior Olympics in Minneapolis.
“I love JO’s,” she said. “I love that atmosphere—it’s just fun.”
After cracking the top 30 in Oslo, Diggins shouldn’t have any trouble in Minneapolis, even against the rest of the cream of the junior crop in the U.S.
But with few expectations on Diggins at World Championships, she said that there might actually be more pressure on her in Minneapolis—and if Grover’s memory serves him right, Diggins’ path to national titles might not be all that easy.
“Kikkan tells a great story—racing 10 years ago in the Lahti 2001 World Championships, and coming home to JO’s and getting beat by Holly Brooks,” Grover said. “You come back from Europe, get a lot of jet lag…somebody who’s a little fresher, [who] hasn’t been racing as much, who’s acclimated, might be able to come close.”
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.