Jessie Diggins bounced back from a crash at the start of the 15km skiathlon in Rybinsk, Russia, continuing to roll on her first World Cup trip, placing 12th at the head of a strong chase group.
Her US Ski Team (USST) teammates Kikkan Randall and Liz Stephen, both on the rebound from illness, placed 25th and 26th respectively. Holly Brooks continued her comeback from a broken wrist, placing 35th, while Ida Sargent was just behind in 37th.
Diggins followed up her stunning 5th place result in Saturday’s 10k skate with another strong performance, though she was unable to capitalize on the experienced gained in the mass start.
After maneuvering to good position after the gun, Diggins tripped and fell on a bridge. She described the crash as “completely my fault,” and said “I got skied right over and just tried to make myself as small as possible until the group went by so I could get up and start working my way back through the pack.”
The experience gave her flashbacks to World Juniors last year where a fall and broken pole sent her to the back.
“I was playing the catch up game yet again today,” Diggins said. “But that’s probably better because when you’re working your way from the back…it only gets better!”
She moved up consistently, and by the last lap sat in a strong group including Germans Katrin Zeller and Nicole Fessel as well as Russian Julia Ivanova, the top native in the race.
Diggins described the last kilometers as “pretty tough,” with the group pushing hard over the hills and switching leads often due to a strong wind.
“In the final hundred meters, I realized I didn’t want to ski 15k only to get passed at the end, so I dug deep and found another gear,” she said. “I guess it must have looked pretty sloppy, but I’ve got some time to work on that.”
Sloppy was not a word that entered the conversation when FasterSkier asked USST women’s coach Matt Whitcomb about the attack at the end.
“It was pretty amazing,” Whitcomb said. “She came in with a pack of girls and it was very clear she wanted to win that pack, and it was a commanding move on her part.”
He compared it to a race at US Nationals last year when Diggins crashed over the top of the final hill, but still managed to come back and win in the final few hundred meters.
Overall Diggins said she felt good but that “yesterday definitely took a toll on my body.”
On the challenging Rybinsk course, Diggins’ race was a bit of a rollercoaster.
“I definitely went through a few phases of feeling super tired, then much better after a little recovery on the flat section, then super smashed again. Sometimes I just had to put my head down and fight to keep up with the group I was with, other times I’d be feeling good enough to bridge a gap to the next group.”
Whitcomb is not worried that Diggins’ early success could present challenges if her results drop off.
“Jessie’s expectations are to continue to have fun with the sport,” he said. “To do that she has to surround herself with a great team and keep perspective on things. So far she has done an amazing job.”
According to Whitcomb, despite her remarkable success, the goal is still for Diggins to continue accumulating experience, and that no streak lasts forever.
“There will always come an end to hot stretches, and that is just something racers need to deal with, and whether that comes sooner or later, we will be prepared,” Whitcomb said.
Randall and Stephen Solid
The day after sitting out her first World Cup race of the season, Randall was back on the track, though not quite at full strength.
“I was feeling ok, but not 100% out there,” Randall wrote to FasterSkier in an email. “I think I may have underestimated the effect that stomach flu had on my energy stores.”
She worked to stay up in the pack through the classic portion of the race, and while she succeeded, she said she “couldn’t quite find the pop I’ve had earlier this season.”
The skate portion “had some good moments and then some rough moments,” as she slipped back in the rankings.
Randall had the opportunity to ski with two of her teammates as Diggins came up right out of the exchange, and Stephen caught her heading into the last skate lap.
She skied with Diggins for nearly a kilometer, saying “I thought I was feeling decent at that point, but then lost touch over the top of the main climb and struggled on my own for a bit.”
After latching on to Stephen, she was able collect herself for the last push to the finish.
She will now spend the week putting in some easy training and will work to let her body “fully recharge.”
Stephen woke up on the morning of the 10k mass start with a mild cold. She still managed to crack the points in both races, “amazing results,” according to Whitcomb.
He added that “today looked leaps and bounds better than yesterday even though the numerical result was similar.”
“I had a pretty solid start for me this year and actually skied in the tail end of the lead pack for the first lap, which was pretty fun,” Stephen said. “But then the leaders broke away and the field started to spread out and I was not able to hang much today. I was moving through different packs of skiers today, never skiing alone, which kept it really interesting and fun, especially with the wind being a real factor it was nice to be able to sit in behind people through the flats in the stadium and to the base of the first hill.”
Brooks Continues Comeback, Sargent Gets Distance Start
Brooks, in her second race back after missing time with a broken wrist, was positive with her improvement.
“Although my result was only slightly better, I felt WAY better than yesterday. I could actually recover a bit on the downhills and punch a bit on the uphills,” Brooks wrote in an email after placing 35th.
She said she ended up by herself in the skate portion, a challenge given the strong wind. And while she wasn’t thrilled with her place she is “hopeful that my body and energy felt entirely different than yesterday.”
With just two hard efforts under her belt, she recognizes it will take some time get back to top form.
“I’m ‘re-entering’ the racing scene and I think it’s probably fair to be slightly patient with the process,” she said.
Her wrist is “good to go,” but she is being cautious, wearing a brace at night, and occasionally during the day.
But she is also trying to consistently use both arms as she works to regain strength in her left side.
With six skiers on the circuit and only five start spots, Sargent and Sadie Bjornsen each got one race this weekend.
Coming off an appearance in the semifinals in the Moscow city sprint Sargent was still nervous for today’s event, having not raced a 15k this year, and holding one of the last several start positions.
She said the that the classec leg was “really rough.”
After taking a feed at the end of the first lap, she cramped badly, and stuggled over the next 5k.
She started feeling better as the race switched to skate, but like Brooks spent that portion of the race on her own.
“The skate leg was the best I’ve felt in awhile in a distance skate race so that’s encouraging,” she said. “Usually I’m a much stronger classic skier so it was cool to move up in the skate leg and not fall apart.”
She credits some of that improvement to technique work in Ramsau last week.
Overall she was pleased with her effort, but looking ahead hopes she can put together both a good start and finish to a distance race.
With all the success on the women’s team right now, Sargent says it isn’t hard to move on from down races.
“There is so much positive energy, that even on tough days it’s pretty easy to feed off the success of teammates which is very inspiring to me,” she said.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.