ROSSLAND, British Columbia — Emerging from a curved and wooded downhill into the open-aired Black Jack stadium, Jessie Diggins suddenly felt an unfamiliar pang of dread. Looking around her, the Central Cross Country and U.S. Ski Team member realized she was alone and not where she wanted to be.
She hadn’t lost the race, but could have been out of it entirely.
The leader of Sunday’s NorAm 9.9 k freestyle mass start, Diggins immediately pulled away from the 50-person pack. Toward the end of the 3.3 k loop, she had created a nearly 20-second gap on her closest competitors: teammate Jennie Bender, Emily Nishikawa (Alberta World Cup Academy), Evelyn Dong (Stella Racing) and Alysson Marshall (AWCA).
Her speed nearly cost Diggins as she missed the lap turn and raced toward the finish line.
“I was zoned out completely,” she said.
On Saturday, Diggins skied that same part of the course several times in the sprint heats, but always turned right. It felt natural to go that way on Sunday.
“I didn’t even think about it, and then I got right down to the stadium, and I went, ‘Oh!’ I actually put my hands up,” Diggins said.
She quickly moved to correct her mistake, skating through a walking path back onto the course a few meters from where she should have turned. As she completed the lap and began to climb again, she told one of her coaches she went the wrong way. Then she considered the consequences.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, not only have I completely embarrassed myself, but I just lost a lot of time,’ ” Diggins said. “And then I was thinking… ‘Am I gonna get DQ-ed? What if they take a minute off my time for that?’ ”
Nearly 14 seconds ahead of her challengers, Diggins decided to push harder. She needed to extend the gap by at least a minute, she thought.
Her head coach, Jason Cork, tried to get her to settle down on the second lap, telling Diggins she had at least 40 seconds on the others. She ended up being nearly a minute ahead.
Skating into the stadium for the second time, Diggins found she was even farther ahead and won the race in 27:36.8. For a minute and 14.9 seconds, she waited at the finish for the others and proceeded to apologize to an official there.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’m sorry, I’m an idiot,’ ” Diggins said. “I took the wrong cutoff, and I don’t know what the penalty is for that, but I’m sorry.”
He told her it should be fine since she lost time there. While her outcome remained uncertain, Diggins celebrated with Bender, who notched her second podium in two days.
For the second straight race, Bender placed third after Marshall in an all-out sprint to the finish. On Saturday, Marshall beat her by a leg in the 1.4 k final. On Sunday, Bender figured she had more time to get an edge.
In the second lap, the chase group dropped Nishikawa and was down to Bender, Marshall and Dong. While Bender and Dong cooperatively switched leads — with Bender pulling on the course’s front side and Dong leading out back — Marshall held her position between them.
In the final stretch into the stadium, Marshall found she had the strength to outlast the others and finished 0.7 seconds ahead of Bender. Dong crossed the line about seven seconds later in fourth.
After the race, Marshall apologized to Bender as they put their warm-ups on.
“I was scared I wasn’t going to be able to stay with them,” said Marshall, second to Diggins in three of the last four NorAm races.
“I didn’t trust myself to lead. I thought I would blow up if I tried to push the pace so I was just trying to hang on,” she said. “Luckily I was able to recover enough in the last couple of kilometers to have a good finishing kick.”
With third as Bender’s personal best by far in a distance skate (she previously placed 10th in a 10 k freestyle nearly two years ago), the 23-year-old said she also lacked confidence during Sunday’s race.
“It’s always the fear, ‘If I let somebody in front of me, what if they keep going and I can’t follow?’ ” Bender said. “There was definitely a little bit of that going on between the three of us.”
In hindsight, Bender said she should have forced Marshall to lead and could improve on tactics overall.
“I was thinking about the finish the whole last lap, like, ‘What is the best way to do this so I don’t screw myself over?’ ” Bender said with a laugh. “And I didn’t do it right, but whatever.”
Dong said she didn’t have enough left at the end, either.
“First, I think we were trying to chase Jessie down, and then we were just trying to beat each other up,” Dong said, jokingly. “Coming into this ‘U’-bend here, they just started breaking away. I just didn’t have it in me.”
She said Marshall was “smart” for settling in.
Marshall still felt the need to apologize.
“I felt bad for not playing my part in this,” she said.
Crossing the line in fifth, Kate Brennan (AWCA) successfully conquered her fear of Rossland’s course after she suffered a season-ending shoulder injury there last year. She went down on a short yet steep hill, which was the site of a major pileup in Saturday’s men’s sprint, and dislocated her shoulder for the fifth time. After struggling with races thereafter, she had shoulder surgery last February.
“(Saturday) I was really kind of facing my demons,” Brennan said of the sprint race, in which she skied the hill four times and placed seventh overall. “I kind of cringed, like, ‘Oh no!’ … (but) it was more I wasn’t going to let it happen again, and that kind of fueled me to hammer into it.”
Her teammate, Nishikawa finished 0.6 seconds after Brennan on Sunday in sixth, 1:41.4 seconds behind Diggins.
“I felt great at the beginning of the second lap and I just tried to go,” Nishikawa said of challenging the chase group. “I went too early and I just kind of blew up. Live and learn.”
Sara Hewitt (CXC) had her best performance of the season in seventh. She had not cracked the top 10 in a race since last year.
“The more I raced, the better I felt,” Hewitt said. “I just needed one more lap and one more hill, and I think I could’ve gotten a couple more girls, too.”
Alana Thomas (Nakkertok) was eighth after placing 10th in Saturday’s sprint. Annika Hicks (AWCA) was ninth for the second day in a row, and Marlis Kromm (AWCA) placed 10th after finishing sixth in the ‘A’ sprint final.
At the end of the women’s race on Sunday, Diggins stood at the top of the podium with the outright win, free of penalties.
“It is a violation and there are options for … a sanction, a penalty,” said technical delegate Ken Hewitt. “And we chose the least serious of them because she significantly disadvantaged herself by doing this.”
“She took a longer route than she should have,” added Chief of Competition Ian Sibbald.
“She penalized herself,” Hewitt said.
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.