VERNON, British Columbia — Throughout Saturday’s NorAm Cup Teck Sprints, Jessie Diggins made a point to look back.
There were a lot of things the current SuperTour leader and Central Cross Country (CXC) skier was working on, but keeping her distance ranked near the top.
“I’ve had problems where I’ll get stepped on or pushed over or something,” said Diggins, who claimed her second classic sprint victory in the 1.2 k event in as many races this season.
“It’s purely because I need to be looking more and be very aware of when someone is going to make a move,” she added.
So Diggins looked back several times — something she doesn’t typically do. It was OK because in every heat but the final, she was several seconds ahead.
In the ‘A’ final, Diggins edged Alysson Marshall of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) after Marshall qualified ahead of her with the fastest time of 3:15.4. Diggins was seeded second, 0.8 seconds back.
“(Alysson) got me fair and square,” Diggins said of the qualifier. “She did a really good job.”
After finishing the first lap at Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre, Diggins felt she could have paced it differently.
“But that’s all right because then in the rounds, you get a couple chances to redeem yourself,” she said.
That’s assuming one advances through two heats to the final.
Heidi Widmer (AWCA) knew she’d have to tweak her race form if she wanted to make it. Unlike Diggins, she focused on looking ahead.
In the qualifier, where Widmer was 10th, her sights nearly cost her. As she crested a hill with a tight corner, she found herself trying to avoid disqualification.
“I was a little premature on the turnaround,” she said. “I caught myself before I was going to turn around too early. The barricade was farther back. It was stupid.”
The younger sister of Phil Widmer, who was sixth in the men’s sprint, she joked about being too eager to turn around.
The Canadian sprinter regrouped for the heats, advancing with Marshall all the way to the ‘A’ final. There, Widmer finished sixth. Andrea Dupont (Rocky Mountain Racers) was ahead in third in third, Jennie Bender (CXC) was fourth and Emily Nishikawa (AWCA) was fifth.
“I wanted to ski really aggressive and make sure I put everything on the line,” Widmer said. “That meant when I got to the line I was pretty bagged.”
She wasn’t the only one. Bender, who qualified in fourth, completed an interval workout with a few teammates two days before, CXC coach Jason Cork said.
“We had a big training week this week so, of course you want to race well, but I think the big focus is nationals,” Cork said. “They did, like, 50 minutes of Level 3 on Thursday so I expected no one to be like super, super, super poppy.”
A pole mishap prompted Bender to ski faster. About halfway through the quarterfinal, another racer stepped on her pole basket and it slipped off. She wouldn’t have been as frustrated if it didn’t happen just a few weeks before in a West Yellowstone sprint.
“I was like, ‘Seriously?’ I made sure they were tight,” Bender said. “Stuff happens like that once in a while.”
After dropping behind, she grabbed a spectator’s pole and pushed forward to win the heat.
“(I) just busted my butt to get back there,” she said.
While Bender lunged at the finish of the ‘A’ final, she wasn’t able to beat Marshall. She wanted to land in the top three, but said the performance was good preparation for the classic sprint at U.S. Nationals on Jan. 8.
“I felt surprisingly better throughout the heats,” said Bender, who qualified in fourth and ended up in the same spot. “As I went along, I kind of woke up more.”
Marshall was also pleasantly surprised with how her legs held up. She stepped off a plane less than a week earlier after racing World Cup sprints in Dusseldorf, Germany, last weekend.
That experience, in which she teamed up with Canada’s Dasha Gaiazova in the team sprint, proved valuable.
“I just wanted to take what I learned on the World Cup and bring it here,” Marshall said. “The speed of the girls there and realizing how much faster you have to go.”
With several weeks of international racing and training behind her, she felt like she was coming into form.
“I feel like I’m getting faster and getting into good race mode now,” Marshall said.
Rounding out the top 10 was Marlis Kromm (AWCA) in seventh, Kate Fitzgerald (APU) in eighth, Kate Brennan (AWCA) in ninth and Alana Thomas (Nakkertok) in 10th.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.