Kikkan Randall was on the bench for the 10km freestyle in Davos, Switzerland on Sunday, but once again demonstrating their depth, the U.S. women still placed three skiers in the top-20.
With Randall opting to rest with World Championships just days away, Jessie Diggins led the way, placing 14th, just 4.2 seconds and one place in front of teammate Liz Stephen.
Holly Brooks rounded out the squad in 20th, her second consecutive race well inside the points.
While the performance marked the best distance finish of the year for Diggins, it could have been even better.
At the halfway point she was in 4th, but a combination of fatigue and a late crash dropped her down the results sheet.
“My second lap the wheels definitely started to come off, and I lost some valuable time crashing on the corner about 1km from the finish,” Diggins wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
She ended up 54.9 second behind winner Therese Johaug (NOR).
U.S. Ski Team (USST) Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb was pleased with his young skier’s performance, and sees the strong 5k time as a positive sign.
“Out of the three girls she probably took it out the hottest and had an outstanding first lap…which is a great sign that she could be a good candidate for a team sprint for us, and also for a leg in the relay,” Whitcomb told FasterSkier.
He described her ability to hold on for a top-15, despite fading hard as “pretty remarkable.”
Diggins was aware of the need to pace on a challenging Davos course, one she described as lacking steep climbs, but with no significant rest.
“You need to really work the gradual down sections and then on the steeper downhills there were two different 180 degree corners! So I was trying hard to ski smart, not just all-out,” Diggins wrote.
While she may not have pulled off ideal pacing, she said she “felt much better” than the day before, and is ready to go for World Championships.
“It is a hard course, a lot of grinding and altitude,” Whitcomb said. “It claims a lot of people that take it a little bit too hard on the first lap.”
Stephen executed a very different race strategy though ended up with a similar result.
She moved up at every time check in the individual start event, ranking 22nd at 1.6k, 18th at 5k and 17th at 7k before finishing 15th.
“For Liz, Davos presents some challenges in that the course skis as a long gradual uphill grind. She tends to excel in steeper V1 terrain and today I saw some patient and powerful V2 out of her on course. This has been a missing gear for Liz and today we saw it working,” Whitcomb said in a USST press release.
Brooks, after placing 23rd in the classic sprint, was once again in the points. The day marked her best World Cup distance result since placing 11th in the Tour de Ski prologue in Oberhof, Germany, back at the end of December.
And the last time she bettered today’s 20th in a race of 5k or more was her 18th in the 5k freestyle as part of the Kuusamo mini-tour on December 1st.
“She has done a great job listening to some signs that she was tired, starting in Russia and starting to taper a little bit sooner than she might have otherwise liked,” Whitcomb said of Brooks. “It has paid off with a twentieth place today, which was a huge result for her and great confirmation that things are turning around and going in the right direction.”
Brooks sprinted well in Sochi, Russia two weeks ago, placing 16th, but struggled in the skiathlon, finishing 41st.
Looking ahead to World Championships, Whitcomb was happy with what he saw on Sunday.
“They made a significant jump, good energy out there, really solid results, we’re psyched with what we saw today,” he said.
— Audrey Mangan contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.