ERZURUM, Turkey — Before Saturday’s 15 k skiathlon began, gold had eluded Norway at the Junior/U23 World Championships. The team repeatedly stressed that the week that the learning experience was more valuable than the hardware, but athletes and team staff alike nonetheless seemed hungry for the wins they are used to.
Martine Ek Hagen (NOR) finally delivered in the skiathlon, skiing a strong skate leg in the second half to win by 13.9 seconds over Italy’s Debora Agreiter. Emma Wiken (SWE) took third (+34.5).
The podium was fairly spread out, but before the gun went off, anything had seemed possible. Russia had dominated the 10 k classic on Thursday, but Jessie Diggins (USA) was finally putting on a bib after recovering from illness earlier this week. Hagen was the top seed, and after a good chunk of time at altitude, had promised after the classic race not to finish the skiathlon with Russians in front of her.
When the race got underway, Diggins, wearing bib number three, was one of the first to come into view over the first hill out of the stadium. Shortly thereafter, she took the lead of the entire race where she stayed until the ski change at the 7.5 k mark.
“That first half of the race felt really good—I was relaxed and strong, and feeling powerful,” said Diggins.
Diggins controlled the pace for the entire classic leg. When she saw U.S. coaches waving a pole for teammate Sadie Bjornsen (USA), Diggins slowed it down to give Bjornsen time.
“When you’re in front you can make sure no one takes off, or you can make it go faster,” said Diggins.
Separated from the pack, she could also take squirrely downhills exactly how she wanted, so Diggins took off before a slick descent that ended in a 180-degree-turn so that she wouldn’t be stuck snowplowing behind the rest of the field. In doing so, she opened up a gap that no one responded to.
“Jessie kind of pushed over the top and the other girls would not go with her,” said Bjornsen. “I was like, ‘What are you doing?’” Part of me wanted to break on the classic, but there was no way I could hold it in skate, but I kind of wanted to just have fun with it.”
Diggins wasn’t sure exactly why no one followed her break.
“I think people knew I wasn’t going to gap the field, they probably figured I was just being safe on the corner,” said Diggins. “Last year here I fell, and someone fell on top of me, so I didn’t want that happening here.”
At no point in the classic leg did Diggins feel like she’d crossed the line and gone too hard, but after the switch to skate skis at the halfway mark, she began having trouble.
“The second half I just had no energy source left,” said Diggins. “It went from good to just falling apart right after the transition. Something felt super wrong.”
“I made the mistake of trying to stay with [the leaders]—it was hard to purposely drop back—but I should have and I ended up really dying. So, needless to say, that second half was probably one of my worst.”
Hagen took the lead in the second half, as skate is her stronger discipline, and she and Agreiter had soon put distance on the rest of the field.
“I thought Jessie Diggins, especially, would follow, but when she gave us a gap, I didn’t want her to catch up with us again,” said Hagen. “I thought Agreiter was very strong, so I was never sure [of the win], but I was hoping it would stay that way.”
Stay it did, as Hagen skied to a comfortable victory. Agreiter’s medal was Italy’s first at U23s since 2007, and she appeared delightedly surprised to have finished so well.
“After the classical part I was surprised I was still in the leading group,” said Agreiter. “After the exchange I was following Martine… In the second [lap] Hagen skied away, but I am very happy for silver.”
Agreiter is hopeful that her medal will gather momentum for others to follow her in Italy.
“There is a very young group of skiers in Italy,” she said. “I hope one day we will have the same results as Arianna Follis or Marianna Longa.”
Diggins, the early leader, finished 15th (+1:39.1).
Would she have held onto the lead if she had been completely healthy?
“You still never know,” said Diggins. “Obviously I’m disappointed with the circumstances; preparation was far from ideal, but that aside, it was still a good experience being here.”
Saturday’s skiathlon was perhaps the first race all season where Diggins didn’t have the race of her life, and beforehand she felt the weight of expectation to keep producing top results.
“It’s easy to have good races and just raise the bar,” said Diggins. “After getting a couple of top-10s on the World Cup, it’s like, ‘Oh, you did really well, you’re going to do really well again.’ But nope, that’s not fair—I can’t expect myself to just do that all the time. I’m a pretty consistent racer, but I’m going to have my ups and downs.”
Her takeaway from the experience is to not let what she imagines to be the expectations of others dictate the way she looks at a race in the future.
“I didn’t expect to feel awesome, so I have to just not worry about feeling like people are watching me and waiting for me to pop off another race,” said Diggins. “Because that’s not a good feeling—then you’re not even racing for yourself.”
She emphasized that, despite her disappointment, the U.S. still placed three in the top 20. Bjornsen finished behind her in 16th (+1:56.6) and Becca Rorabaugh (USA) was 19th (+2:14.4).
The rest of the North Americans struggled on the tough altitude course. Emily Nishikawa (CAN) was 27th (+3:34.4), Annika Hicks (CAN) was 33rd (+5:03.2), and Marlies Kromm (CAN) was 36th (+7:07.1). Heidi Widmer was lapped and pulled.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.