MILAN, Italy – Italy is a place of great history, with ruins from ages past, ancient works of art and a culture that existed long before North America felt the footfall of Western civilization.
Americans and Canadians generally travel to Italy to admire the history of the country, not make it.
But on another brilliant sunny day in the northern Italian metropolis of Milan, Kikkan Randall, Jessie Diggins, Chandra Crawford and Perianne Jones did just that, setting a new mark for North American success in a season already replete with banner achievements.
While the Swedish pair of Ida Ingemarsdotter and Hanna Brodin won the freestyle team sprint in convincing fashion, giving the former her second victory of the weekend, the story of the day begins one step down on the podium.
Randall and Diggins took second in the race, just ahead of Crawford and Jones, marking the first time that the US and Canada have shared a World Cup podium in cross-country skiing.
The achievement is notable, and worthy of celebration by North American ski fans—but it is hardly surprising.
The quartet did not come to Milan to take in the sites, admire new fashions, and sip cappuccino in cafes. They came to ski, and ski fast—something that has become more and more the norm this World Cup season.
Randall and Crawford nearly set this mark back in November, in Dusseldorf, when the American won the individual sprint, and Crawford placed fourth.
Then in Rogla, both women reached the final of the skate sprint, but Randall crashed and only Crawford reached the podium.
It may have been only a matter of time before the two countries stood together at the flower ceremony, but putting together four great races as opposed to two is no mean feat.
Throw in the uncertainties of city sprint team racing and the result is even more impressive.
The day nearly came to an early end for both teams. Fortuitously, they did not match up in the semifinals, but with just two teams in each heat advancing automatically to the finals, and the remaining six chosen based on time, there would be no assurances.
The Canadians skied well in the first semi, coming back from a slow start and placing third on the strength of a fine final push from Crawford.
But the heat was slow, with a winning time ultimately eight seconds behind the second semi, and despite placing third, Canada advanced as the very last of the six lucky losers.
Racing in the second semi, the Americans were significantly faster, but had to overcome the usual challenges of team sprint racing.
Diggins, in her first World Cup weekend of the year (and only the second of her career), fell in the tag zone, both a foreshadowing of what was to come, and a very present setback.
But the veteran Randall did not panic, and Diggins bounced back just fine. The pair rallied to place fourth in the faster heat, safe within the land of lucky losers.
Crawford and Randall have been around the World Cup block a few times, and each holds a major championship medal. Jones, while less accomplished overall, has also had her fair share of success in the big show.
Diggins, however, is just twenty years old, and had all of one World Cup start under her belt prior to this weekend (she also raced at World Championships in Oslo last year, faring very well).
After a strong performance in the individual sprint, Diggins posted lap times ranked 2nd, 4th and 1st in the semifinal, proof that she would not be holding the Americans back in the final round.
The first laps of the final were as uneventful as a team sprint can get—plenty of jockeying for position and movement within the pack, but nothing race-deciding.
Both the US and Canada remained trouble-free, and with Randall and Crawford closing, they just needed to stay in the mix.
Throughout the day, it became clear that with no hills to speak of, the one spot on the course that could be truly decisive was the tag zone.
US Ski Team head coach Chris Grover said that this is often the case in this race format.
“The team sprint is often won or lost in the exchange zone,” Grover told FasterSkier, adding that it is easy to lose a second or two while tagging off—time that is difficult, if not impossible to make up on course.
The Canadian pair used smooth tags to move into position for the last leg of the semis, while the American men went the other direction, falling out of the race due to a collision in the transition.
Coming into this roiling storm of skis, poles, and high speed for the second time in the final, one of the French skiers cut across in front of Diggins, hitting her skis and sending the American tumbling to the ground.
Randall, already in motion, said she felt some tag-like contact, but it didn’t seem to be the required hand-to-body.
She slammed on the brakes, and had to actually retreat back down the course when Diggins, back on her feet, went down a second time.
“She fell again, right as she was tagging me, but that time it felt solid enough,” Randall said. “I knew I had a lot of work to do, and it really just depended on how those front girls wanted to ski.”
If the leaders had hit the accelerator, Randall said she would be hard-pressed to close the gap. Randall described the pace as “pretty fast,” but by the end of the first lap of her second leg, she had made up the full 25 meters nonetheless.
One her second lap, she began to move back through the field, work that Diggins continued on her final leg.
“I was just feeling like, man, I need to get a shot of redemption here after falling twice,” Diggins said. “I’ve had girls skiing all over me—I need to just go as hard as I can early on.”
Brodin was pushing at the front, and actually opened a small gap, stringing out the field and leaving a bit more room to move. Diggins slipped up into 3rd with Jones right on her tails.
Both teams executed the final exchange with aplomb, and when Norway and Switzerland went down in a tangle, Randall shot out of the tag in the lead, a remarkable reversal of fortunes.
“It’s crazy,” Diggins said. “It was just blowing my mind how fast it could change… You could be in second place and then take one corner wrong, and be in the back of the pack and then take the next corner well and be back near the front, and …everything kept shifting. It was nuts.”
Confident in the fitness that has made her a consistent top-10 threat in World Cup distance racing, Randall still liked her chances when Diggins tagged off in good position.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be quite as nice as having not had to expend that extra energy on the second leg,” Randall said of her final leg.
Crawford locked in on her American counterpart, telling FasterSkier that she was making decisions on the fly while sticking to her one plan.
“Today, I employed a strategy I’ve been working on since December which was: follow Kikkan, she’s going to get to the front,” Crawford said.
At the lap, Ingemarsdotter passed aggressively on the inside, but Randall held strong, Falla skiing to her outside.
Out of the final turn, Linn Soemskar of Sweden II swung wide along with Falla, leaving Crawford a lane behind Ingemarsdotter.
Randall was clear on the inside and the race was on.
The Swede had too big a gap, and Randall used a lunge at the line to wrap up second place for the Americans, with Crawford holding third.
“We’re really focused on staying smooth and relaxed and out of trouble, and kicking when it counts. That was our whole strategy,” Crawford said.
“Through the last few months I’ve attacked too early and too late and not at all. So today, I just keep working to get those attacks right,” she continued.
Jones certainly felt her teammate timed this one perfectly, rushing the finish pen and practically leaping into her teammate’s arms. This marked the first World Cup podium appearance for the almost-27-year-old.
“I was hoping this day was coming soon,” said Jones. “I’m super pumped right now!”
Randall, off-balance from her lunge, crashed to the ground and lay on her back, totally spent, but smiling even as she lay in the snow.
“North America didn’t used to be on the podium at all, and now to take two of the three places, it’s pretty awesome,” Randall said later.
All the attention showered on the North Americans should not minimize the accomplishments of the Swedes. Ingemarsdotter was a machine this weekend, dismantling the field in a precision performance.
In the final leg today, she bested Randall, Crawford, and Maiken Caspersen Falla, the first-, third- and fifth-ranked sprinters in the World—and she made it look relatively easy, opening a significant gap and holding the energy to celebrate the win with a vigorous fist pump and leg kick.
Brodin held up her end as well, keeping the team out of trouble, and putting Ingemarsdotter in position to make her move.
Thank you to Joran Elias of StatisticalSkier.com for confirming that Canada and the USA had never shared the World Cup Cross-Country podium prior to today.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.