Jessie Diggins and Liz Stephen had a plan. Norway’s Kristin Stormer Steira was starting four seconds ahead of Diggins; Stephen was starting two seconds back in Friday’s 15-kilometer pursuit in Toblach, Italy.
“We predicted Jessie would be stronger on the flats and descents, and Liz stronger on the long but gradual climbs” said U.S. Ski Team head coach Matt Whitcomb.
Diggins and Stephen immediately started working together to catch Steira, and then they formed a group of three, headed out on course about two and half minutes behind Tour leader Astrid Jacobsen, of Norway. FasterSkier also reported on the overall race.
“The three of us worked together.” Diggins wrote in a blog post forwarded to FasterSkier. “I couldn’t keep up on the climbs, but on the second half of the course, and especially the gradual downhill, I would catch up.”
The three women formed a chase pack, working their way through the forested and hilly three-lap course, overtaking seven other skiers during the race.
“The three of us worked together, and sometimes we were in a pack of four or more girls, as people would join or drop based on how they were feeling on that part of the course” Diggins wrote.
“It was one of our best days for coming up with a tactical plan,” Whitcomb said, “but also for employing that plan successfully.”
Starting a bit behind is not such a bad thing for the American skiers in distance skate races, according to Whitcomb, since that tends to be their strength.
Diggins agrees. “I love pursuit starts where I get to chase people down.”
“Kristin, Liz and I all took turns pulling – I would lead the flats and downhills, doing the work where my strengths were on the course to help pull the group along, and then I’d try my best to stay in contact on the climbs,” she wrote.
“All the girls were ready to step aside and take a ride behind each other” Whitcomb said.
The effort of matching one’s own weaknesses to another’s strengths caused all the women to have to dig deep.
“It was painful, for sure” wrote Diggins. “I could feel the acid rising in my throat every time I got into a tuck.”
At the end, the team once again became rivals; Steira edged Stephen by four-tenths of a second in a sprint to the finish to take 11th place, for a course time of 37:28.6. Diggins took 13th place 3.3 seconds behind Stephen.
Stephen posted the fifth fastest time of the day and Diggins the seventh, both within 12 seconds of the fastest woman, Sara Lindborg of Sweden.
Now the team is in Val di Fiemme preparing to race the final two stages of the Tour, trying their best to recover and making the best possible use of the ice bath. Diggins and Stephen will race the final two stages; teammate Holly Brooks, who finished 39th is dropping out of the Tour to prepare for the Olympics in February.
Teammate Sophie Caldwell, sixteenth overall in the Tour, did not start as planned all along.
Looking forward, but not too far, Whitcomb was cheerful:
“We are just really excited about how things are looking headed into the last two days in Val di Fiemme,” he said.
— Pasha Kahn and Topher Sabot contributed reporting.