As the sunlight sliced through rows of majestic trees in Nové Město na Moravě, Czech Republic, Sunday around noon, a few of the Norwegians could have afforded to soak up the scenery in the women’s 4×5 k relay.
They probably didn’t, though.
Marit Bjørgen finally lifted her head to look around as she entered the stadium to seal the Norwegian win. With a nearly 40 second lead, Bjørgen as the Norway I anchor threw up her hands and smiled. For the second time in as many relays this season, Norway had won it.
For three of four legs, Norway’s ‘A’ team led comfortably. Vibeke Skofterud started off the relay in a tight battle with her teammate on the national team, Heidi Weng, the first leg on Norway II. Skofterud and Weng tagged off together, with Skofterud giving Norway I the slight edge.
Therese Johaug took that advantage and ran with it. Within a few strides, she dropped Ragnhild Haga of Norway II and went on to give teammate Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen a nearly 30-second lead. Russia was the new contender for second with Finland, and Haga fell back to fourth.
For Norway I, the race was essentially in the bag – especially with Bjørgen heading out 33.7 seconds ahead of anyone else. They refused to let up.
“We never take a relay victory for granted,” Jacobsen told FIS News. “In a relay, [anything] can happen. … It was hard to race alone the whole way in front. You have to push always because you can lose quite quickly a lot of seconds.”
Finland and Norway II, which finished second and third in a photo finish, would have likely preferred to ski alone for the win. The Swedish and American anchors in Charlotte Kalla and Jessie Diggins probably felt the same way.
After Finland and Norway II successfully dropped Russia on the third leg, the two continued to battle for second. More than 30 seconds ahead of Sweden, Germany and the U.S. at the last handoff, they looked liked they had a handle on the podium.
Meanwhile, Kalla tried to close on Finland’s Krista Lahteenmaki and Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg of Norway II. Diggins went with her.
For all 5 kilometers of their skate leg, Kalla and Diggins skied together, with Diggins looking back to see who was behind them. Russia was closest, some 40 seconds behind them in sixth, and Germany had fallen further back.
Coming into the stadium after their first lap, Diggins moved ahead of Kalla, a two-time Olympic medalist from the 2010 Vancouver Games. Her gold and silver didn’t faze Diggins; it gave her strength.
“I’m sure I was in a lot of pain,” Diggins wrote in an email, “But I was so excited at the chance to race neck-and-neck with and Olympic Gold Medalist that I didn’t feel a thing!”
Kalla regained the lead after 2.5 k and continued to make a run for third. When it became clear that more than 20 seconds was too much to overcome, she and Diggins refused to let up and kept pushing for fourth.
There, Kalla had the edge by 0.1 seconds, and Diggins finished fifth (+54.8) collapsing on the ground while several teammates, including Holly Brooks, Ida Sargent and Liz Stephen, rushed over to congratulate her. It was the Americans’ best relay result of the season.
“I was so incredibly proud of our team today – racers, athletes cheering, coaches, wax techs,” Diggins wrote. “It was so amazing how everyone just shrugged off the disappointment of yesterday and woke up ready to give this race everything they had.”
A Fresh Start
Going into the race, the U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb said in a phone interview that the game plan was to rebound from Saturday, after every American placed outside the top 30 in the classic distance mass starts. Many of the women had been dealing with lingering colds and felt tired after competing in Russia, he said.
“So today was a hugely positive result,” Whitcomb said. “[We were] hoping that they could all tie together four really strong legs, and they did that so we were just ecstatic.”
Without Kikkan Randall in the lineup because she was recovering from a cold, Brooks rallied to lead the team as the first leg. She did not finish Saturday’s 15 k because of digestive problems, which plagued her since last week’s race in Moscow, but knew she had to be ready for the relay.
“I was worried and anxious about what kind of performance I would be able to deliver,” Brooks wrote in an email. “It’s one thing to let yourself down but it’s a completely different thing to let down the rest of a relay team!”
Fortunately, her body held up for 5 k and she put the team in eighth, 34.6 seconds behind the leaders.
“My goal today was to stay in contact with the other teams and luckily, I was able to do it,” she wrote, noting an aggressive start in which she had to “extend” her elbows.
In her first time skiing the scramble position, Brooks wrote that it suited her strengths and she had a lot of fun. It also gave her a chance to cheer on her team in its best performance in recent memory.
“I’m ecstatic about our team performance, especially given the fact that we didn’t have one of our strongest teammates on board,” she wrote, referring to Randall, who was resting before the last freestyle sprint of the year on Friday in Poland. “I think our 5th place finish today goes to show the depth of our team right now.”
Whitcomb said that Brooks was their wild card, considering she felt the worst going into the relay.
“She laid down an incredible leg and the team just fed off of that,” Whitcomb said.
Usually leading off, Sargent tried out the second leg and brought the U.S. to sixth, passing Kazakhstan and France in the process. Feeling good, Sargent wrote in an email that she skied as hard as she could to pick off as many places as possible on the second lap.
“My goal for today was to ski my own race and go as hard as I could,” she wrote.
Whitcomb said it was Sargent’s best performance in her third World Cup relay. She was 1:06.4 out of first when she tagged Stephen, who kept the team in sixth and passed off to Diggins in a crowded exchange zone with Sweden and Germany.
“As soon as Liz came through the tag zone and I realized I was right behind Kalla, I threw my plans of ‘skiing my own race’ out the window and proceeded to glue myself to Kalla,” Diggins wrote. “It was great to ski with her and though I couldn’t get around her in time to pull a great sprint at the end, I’m psyched out of my mind to have been in a photo finish with Charlotte Kalla!”
While Whitcomb was hardly surprised with Diggins’ performance, especially since she was the only woman who was completely healthy, he was impressed with her anchor leg.
“To hear over the radio that, ‘Jessie’s now leading Kalla on the second lap,’ … was an incredible thing to hear,” he said.
She came as close as 18 seconds to third place and skied the fastest fourth leg of the day.
U.S. head coach Chris Grover said the team’s overall performance showed its depth and potential.
“It was really gratifying for us to be able to field such a competitive team with kind of our marquee woman out of the mix,” he said of Randall, who usually starts first or second.
Whitcomb said the made a conservative but good decision to rest Randall, who was aiming to keep her lead in the World Cup sprint standings.
“Without Kikkan, we still had a strong team, we felt, and we fully supported the move to make sure she is 100 percent healthy as we travel to Poland,” Whitcomb said.
“We’ve known for a couple years that when this team starts to really pull together in the direction that it’s pulling, the medals will be getting closer and closer,” he said of the relays. “And you can sure see the possibility now.”
Congratulating one another at the finish, the U.S. women wrapped up the weekend with the feeling they were used to: excitement.
“We definitely had the most fun out there with glitter, face paint, knee high red white and blue striped socks and huge smiles,” Sargent wrote. “We were so pumped in the finish area that Vibeke Skofterud and some of the other Norwegian girls on the winning team started taking pictures of us.”
“We really had fun out there today as a team,” Diggins wrote. “And it definitely showed.”
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.