RUMFORD, Maine – Standing opposite of six bodies storming toward the finish at the 2012 U.S. Cross Country Championships on Tuesday, a spectator a few hundred meters away might have struggled to pick out a specific racer in the Central Cross Country crew.
There were three of them in the women’s 1.4 k freestyle sprint A-final at the Black Mountain on Tuesday — all in red, all blond and all at the front of the pack.
Closer to the finish line, the athletes came into focus and made their moves as individuals. After winning the same race in Rumford at last year’s nationals, Jessie Diggins (USST/CXC) was the fastest qualifier in 2:58.84 on Tuesday. She went on to win her heats and appeared poised for another victory.
For Jennie Bender and Caitlin Gregg, second and third appeared up for grabs.
Just before the finish, Gregg threw up her arms to celebrate. Fewer than 30 meters behind her, Bender scrambled to recover from a last-minute fall. Gregg had successfully finished second to Diggins, and Bender managed to get up and pull off third.
After the remaining racers finished — Corey Stock (Cambridge Sports Union) in fourth, Eliska Hajkova (University of Colorado Boulder) in fifth, and Ida Sargent (U.S. Ski Team/Craftsbury Green Racing Project) in sixth – Bender remained on the ground, grimacing in pain.
“I think I split my butt in two,” she said with a laugh after the race.
Joking aside, it really hurt, she said. CXC head coach Jason Cork said she might have bruised her tailbone. Fortunately for her, Wednesday is an off day in the recently altered U.S. Nationals weeklong schedule.
“She’s super bummed and understandably so,” Cork said. “She could have won; she got third. … Any time the team gets 1-2-3, that’s good.”
Bender wasn’t sure how the fall happened. She figured she lost control of her movements in the final push. That wasn’t that uncommon in a sprint, she said.
Dartmouth senior Sophie Caldwell fell about 50 meters from the finish in the B-final on Tuesday. The runner-up in last year’s freestyle sprint at nationals, Caldwell ultimately placed 12th overall.
Despite Bender’s mishap, the CXC women were all smiles standing together after the race. Bender said she and Gregg worked cohesively in the quarterfinals and semifinals. Once the final came around, team tactics were simple.
“When you’ve got a bunch of red suits in there, you just kind of say, ‘OK, follow that red suit,’ ” said Gregg, the second-fastest female qualifier in 3:01.37.
“Amazingly, despite our slip-ups and a fall we still went 1-2-3,” Gregg said.
“Which is the best feeling ever, three on the podium,” Diggins added.
After winning her quarterfinal, Diggins said she didn’t like having a bull’s-eye on her back.
“I don’t like the feeling that everyone’s watching me, trying to take me down,” she said.
Last year in the same race at nationals, she fell in the final and came back to win.
“Sometimes you have to deal with that,” Diggins said.
For the most part on Tuesday, she didn’t. The first to start in the qualifier and quick to break out in the heats, Diggins positioned herself to her liking – in front. She had to be careful, with a particularly long downhill into Black Mountain’s large stadium.
“It’s definitely an interesting course when you finish on that downhill,” Cork said. “You might be sitting first and might end up last because everyone goes by you.”
Several racers said the hard-packed and fast conditions remained consistent throughout the afternoon with temperatures in the mid-teens. Race organizers had postponed Monday’s sprint in hopes of blowing snow for Tuesday after unseasonably warm weather and heavy rain saturated the manmade course Sunday night.
Despite nearly 400 racers that descended on the course on Tuesday, some taking four laps apiece plus warm-up loops, the cover held.
Fresh off the World Cup circuit, Sargent said the skiing was fun. For her, it was also tumultuous – especially in the final. Skating out of the stadium and vying for the front with several others, Sargent broke her pole. Several hundred meters later, she had not found a replacement.
With no other alternative but to keep free skiing, she started skating up the first hill with one pole in hand.
“Nobody had a pole out there, I don’t know what happened,” Sargent said. “So I was trying to get one from one of the APU coaches and then I fell over. I got a pole though, but I was way off the back. I tried to catch up … pretty frustrating day.”
Sargent said the adversity was relative after experiencing tough breaks and falls in the World Cup.
“My qualifying wasn’t superb today,” she said. “On the world cup, [it’s] like, you’re done, but here, it’s like, oh, you get another chance. … Here it was kind of fun to play around, try some different strategies.”
In her first U.S. Nationals, Stock was happy to qualify in 17th. She was even more excited to finish fourth.
“It’s an exciting start to the season to see how the training’s turning out in my racing,” the 17-year-old high school senior said. “It was definitely a surprise. I’m really happy and it was really fun to be out there … It was pretty cool to be on the same course as all those amazing athletes.”
Hajkova, who finished 5th, said she was behind Sargent when the latter broke her pole, and like Sargent, wasn’t able to catch the others.
Rosie Brennan (APU), who won the B-final, decided to get out fast so she could ski her own race.
“I’m not really much of a sprinter, so the getting off the line part is somewhat of a challenge,” she said.
Craftsbury Green Racing Project’s Hannah Dreissigacker was ninth and teammate Maria Stuber finished 10th. Also in the B-final, Kate Fitzgerald (APU) was 11th.
The first listed starter in the women’s qualifier, Sadie Bjornsen (APU) did not compete because of illness.
Audrey Mangan contributed reporting.
For women’s qualifier results, click here.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.