Just when it didn’t seem possible for Jessie Diggins (USA) to perform any better than she already has on the World Cup this winter, she went ahead and set another career best in Moscow.
After qualifying first in the prelims 2.47 seconds ahead of the rest of the field, the U.S. Ski Team (USST) rookie ended up sixth on Thursday in the freestyle sprint at Russia’s Luzhniki Olympic Stadium, leading the U.S. women to three top-12 finishes. Kikkan Randall and Ida Sargent were seventh and 12th, respectively. Sadie Bjornsen was 39th, 3.58 seconds out of qualifying.
“I did a couple backflips on the inside, for sure,” said Diggins of setting a personal best. “I was just on cloud nine. … I’ve always dreamed of being in an A-final at some point, so being able to ski with those girls was really cool.”
From the way she skied the qualifier through to the final heats, it was impossible to guess that making it to the A-final had not even been on Diggins’s radar — she’d gone into the rounds hoping for a top 15.
After setting a high standard in qualifying, she skied commanding quarterfinal and semifinal rounds.
“I tried to stay out of trouble; I knew people would be super aggressive, so I wanted to try to stay near the front,” Diggins said of her strategy in the heats.
“In the quarters I got off to a good start and decided to just go for it,” she said.
Diggins remained in the front at the finish, where she was just nosed at the line by Ida Ingemarsdotter (SWE). The decision to go early worked well early in the day, but may have cost her later on.
“Maybe it wasn’t a good idea for me to be leading; there was a bit of a headwind,” she said “I think I paid for it later in the final. I just ran out of energy.”
USST Head Coach Chris Grover was just as pleasantly surprised as Diggins with her performance.
“We obviously knew she was in great shape from the previous two weekends, and her whole fall on the SuperTour and her nationals racing, but for her to go out and win the qualifier by two and a half seconds on such a grinding, slow course was definitely a surprise,” Grover said.
Randall saw the breakthroughs, for both Diggins and Sargent, as testament to the experience they’ve accumulated on the World Cup this year.
“They’ve been building confidence every week,” Randall said. “It’s great to see them both have career bests. We always knew we were capable of it.”
For her own race, Randall was still recovering from the stomach flu she had last weekend and happy to finish seventh despite not feeling her best.
“I wasn’t sure how it would affect me,” she said. “I wanted to go for the win just like always … I didn’t know where my body would be at.”
After qualifying in seventh, Randall squared off in the quarterfinal against Natalia Matveeva (RUS) and Ingvild Oestberg (NOR), both in the top five in the World Cup sprint standings. Randall made it through to the next round just behind Oestberg, 0.8 seconds ahead of Matveeva.
Sargent qualified in 26th, and her quarterfinal included eventual winner Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) and Russia’s Natalia Korosteleva.
“My plan for the heats was to ski conservatively but towards the front of the pack and then go for it at the finish,” said Sargent.
She crossed the line in third, 0.5 behind Kowalczyk and Korosteleva, but going up against the World Cup leader has its benefits. Kowalczyk pushed the pace all day, and after the final two heats were complete, Sargent’s heat held as the fastest, and she advanced as the lucky loser to the semis.
“I had to wait around a bit to find out if I was a lucky loser, but I was already really psyched and happy with being third in my heat so it wasn’t too bad,” Sargent said. “Grover also told me that my heat was very fast and he was pretty confident that I would make it.”
With three women through to the same semifinal heat, the Americans’ energy ran high heading into the next round.
“This team is so fun,” Diggins said. “When one person is having a good day, everyone gets pumped up about it. It’s really cool; you can feel it.”
Randall similarly enjoyed competing head-to-head with her teammates.
“After all the practice we’ve been doing together, it was definitely fun to ski at the front with them like that,” she said.
Though she ran out of gas later on, Diggins controlled the semifinal. At one point, the U.S. was in the first three spots of the heat.
“There was this moment when we realized the U.S. was going 1-2-3,” said Diggins. “That was so cool. I don’t know if that’s ever happened in a sprint heat before.”
Diggins advanced as the winner of their semi, but Randall placed third and Sargent was sixth to end the day in the second round.
“Kikkan got so drained by that stomach bug, to be as high as seventh is pretty good,” Grover said.
Sargent got held up in a tangle on the final bridge, which cost her some momentum coming into the stadium, but she thinks she was about spent anyway.
Heading towards the finish, “I didn’t have the legs anymore for that sprint,” Sargent said.
With a new personal best now on her resume, Sargent had no complaints.
“I just wanted to qualify again today so I was super psyched with 12th,” she said.
The second semifinal, with Kowalczyk and three fast Finns, was nearly two seconds faster than the first. Three teammates in one heat could theoretically have reduced the chances of all three moving on, but given how fast the other heat was, Grover thought the U.S. results accurately reflected his athletes’ fitness.
“I don’t know if we’d had women split into both semis it would have helped anyone,” said Grover. “All three got out to a fast start — they were all nailing the starts today, getting in a good position. It was a true test of where people were feeling, fitness-wise.”
On the whole, he was pleased with his athletes’ efforts in putting together another groundbreaking race for the U.S.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had that many women in the top 12,” said Grover. “This is for sure an historic day for us.”
The USST drove from Moscow to Rybinsk, Russia, on Thursday evening, where the World Cup resumes on Saturday with a 10 k skate for the women.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.