Jessie Diggins once again demonstrated that she’s a skier with a lot of heart at the 2014 U23 World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy. On the same course where she earned a historic gold in the World Championship team sprint with Kikkan Randall in 2013, the 22-year-old was once again the talk of Lago di Tesero as she powered through the rounds of the 1.2 k freestyle sprint.
With perfect conditions blessing the quaint Italian village of Tesero, Diggins started the day with a blistering pace that was boosted her to top of the field in qualification. Continuing to build confidence and speed, she just kept going.
Deciding to go hard from the sound of the gun, Diggins sped to the front of the pack in her quarterfinal, semifinal, and the A-final en route to her silver medal. Although she breezed through her quarterfinal, the semifinal proved more challenging.
Trying to save energy, the Minnesota native relaxed at the top of the main hill, allowing her competitors to step in behind her, draft, and then slingshot around her into the finish. She finished third in her heat, hopeful that the other semifinal would be slower.
Fortunately for Diggins, her heat was significantly faster and she was the first lucky loser into the A-final.
Diggins knew that in order to perform well in the final, she needed to learn from her previous mistakes and take her strengths into account. “In the final I knew that I hadn’t been skiing the finishing lanes very well today but if I could tire people out, that was going to be my chance to win it,” said Diggins in an interview.
Tire them out she did. One by one her competitors dropped until it was just Elisabeth Schicho of Germany who clung to the heels of the charging American.
Coming down the hill, Schicho blew by Diggins and after that the German “just skied off.”
Despite being unable to hold her lead, Diggins was extremely happy with best ever finish at a Junior or U23 World Championships.
Diggins’ main goal was to make the heats and have fun in the process. After coming off a large training week, Diggins was fatigued and she knew she wasn’t at her best. Despite her tiredness, there were valuable lessons to gain from the sprint.
“It was so good to practice dealing with pressure and use this as a tune up race to get more experience,” she said “All I wanted to do was to make the final, get the experience, and get the tactical practice.”
Roughly a week and a half out of Sochi, it certainly didn’t hurt the U.S. Ski Team member to receive a confirmation that she can ski well even when she isn’t feeling up to par.
“This has been a great confidence booster going into Sochi knowing that when I hit my peak I’ll have more energy. Gaining the experience of skiing through to the finals has really great for me because it’s been so long since I’ve been in finals.”
The freestyle sprint is Diggins only race at the U23 World Championships, and she will return to train with the U.S. Ski Team to prepare for the Olympic Games in Russia.
The only other American to make the heats was Annie Pokorny (SMST2) who earned her best international result to-date after qualifying 28th and finishing in the same position.
“When we woke up, the valley was sunny for the first time since we arrived, so I had a feeling that, whether for me or my teammates, today would be a good day,” said the Spokane, Washington native in an email. “Today was my first time starting an international championship sprint, so I focused most on keeping myself calm before the qualifier. I’ve been focusing more on sprinting this year, and wanted my races to speak to that.”
Rounding out the American women’s results were Elizabeth Guiney (Craftsbury GRP) who finished 39th and Mackenzie Kanady (UAA) who placed 40th.
In the U23 men’s 1.5 k two Americans cracked the top 20. Erik Bjornsen of the U.S. Ski Team and Tyler Kornfield of APU finished 18th and 19th after finishing fourth in each of their heats.
Bjornsen who is also headed to Sochi in the coming weeks wasn’t pleased with his result, but viewed it as a learning experience.
“The two guys that won my heat ended up going 2-3 in the final so that’s a good sign. I took some notes on how I think I can improve, for now I will put those in the safe and try to just focus on tomorrow,” said Bjornsen, who won the 15 k classic at U.S. Nationals earlier this month. “I know that tomorrow is another great opportunity to have a good result.”
Unlike Diggins, Bjornsen isn’t treating the Championships as a tune up for Sochi. Instead he plans on racing as he normally would, aiming to earn his best results in the two distance races.
A two-time classic sprint national champion in 2010 and 2012, Kornfield was excited that this was his first time qualifying for the heats in the three years that he’s been to the Junior/U23 World Championships.
“I am definitely happy to be in the mix, but I know that I am capable of more. There were portions of the course that I was dead even with the field, but it was when I got boxed in that I lost time,” he said. “I may have had better days over the past few weeks, but I felt like my fitness did not hold me back today.”
Ben Saxton (SMST2) finished just outside of the top 30 in 33rd. He was followed by Benjamin Lustgarten (Middlebury) in 48th.
In the junior men’s 1.5 k Cole Morgan was the only American to advance to the heats, after qualifying in 14th position. Morgan, who ended his day in 17th, was motivated by his good qualification result because it showed him that he “could be competitive in the rounds.”
The University of Vermont skier had only raced internationally once before Wednesday’s race, but didn’t let the advanced level of competition get to his head. “I don’t like to think of international racing as anything different,” he wrote in an email. “Regardless who is racing you just have to go out there and race your own race. Getting hung up on where the other skiers are from is only going to hurt your chances.”
Patrick Caldwell (SMS) followed Morgan in 39th. Jack Hegman (UVM) and Thomas O’Harra (APU) were 53rd and 54th.
The American junior women were unable to place any of their starters in the top 30. The top finisher was Stephanie Kirk (UVM) finishing 36th. She was followed by Marion Woods (AWS), Sloan Storey (UU), and Nicole Bathe (UAF) in 51st, 54th, and 56th.
The Americans will continue racing in Val di Fiemme Thursday with the 10 k and 15 k classic for the U23 skiers.
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.