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SOCHI, Russia – Jessie Diggins didn’t expect to have her best race ever in the ladies’ 15 kilometer skiathlon today. In fact, like most of her teammates, she expected to warm into the Games – this was just the first stop along the way, a chance to get the race legs going.
“For sure. I was hoping to maybe get a top 20, not a top 10!” Diggins exclaimed after the race, where she finished eighth.
Not bad for the first Olympic appearance of her career.
“Out of the four races I hope to do, this was the one that I had the least expectations for,” Diggins continued. “I didn’t think this was going to be my best race. And hopefully the rest of the races go just as well because it was awesome. It definitely came as a surprise to have such a good race.”
Along with teammate Liz Stephen, Diggins started conservatively, but steadily, in the 7.5 k classic portion of the race. She was sitting in 27th place at the ski exchange, about 50 seconds behind Marit Bjørgen of Norway and the lead pack of six other skiers.
But on the 7.5 k skate section, Diggins turned on the afterburners. When the dust cleared, she was in eighth place – matching the best performance ever by a U.S. woman in a cross country ski race at the Olympics. Kikkan Randall finished eighth in the classic sprint four years ago in Vancouver.
“I had a great peaking plan from the coaches and awesome skis,” Diggins said. “In the classic part I was just trying to stay calm, conserve energy, and stay out of tangles. And just remain in contact. In the skate part I started ramping it up to pick people off.”
To add a cherry on top of this Olympic sundae, teammate Liz Stephen skied a monster skate leg to move from 31st up to 12th. Two women in the top 15? That’s for sure a best day, and it highlights how far the U.S. women’s team has come in four years.
“Having such a deep field of girls who can all be in the top ten or top five or top 20 every day, it’s great,” Stephen said. “I couldn’t be part of a better team. I’m really happy to be with the girls I’m with.”
There were numerous hints throughout the season so far that the U.S. women were capable of such results, particularly in this discipline.
“As you’ve seen from Jessie and Liz, they’ve both had top-ten World Cup results in classic this year,” U.S. Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb said. “So we know now that if they finish in the top ten they can ski their way into the top five or better on the skate leg – they’re just superior skaters. Today was close to that. For Jessie it was one of her best classic races of her life.”
As a result of the team’s rising abilities, expectations were a lot higher at this Olympics than they ever have been before for the team.
“I knew that today could be outstanding,” Whitcomb said. “We’re not chucking Hail Marys like we once did heading into the games. We arrived with a bunch of people ready to just go big.”
In Vancouver, the ski community placed high hopes on Stephen and teammate Morgan Arritola, who were considered to be the up-and-coming distance skiers in the U.S. One Games later, Stephen is delivering on that promise – and has been joined by Diggins, who is young enough that she wasn’t even in consideration for an Olympic spot last time around, but has made a powerful argument for herself ever since.
“My last Olympics, I think my best result was like a 50th, or 48th or something,” Stephen said. “To start off the games with 12th, I’m really happy with it. I’m hoping for more as the Games go on, for sure, but I’m really happy with today… It takes the pressure off to
start the Olympics up. You wait around and you train and you prepare, and there’s so much that goes into the Olympics. It’s fun to just hear the gun go off and know that it’s just another ski race, with a cooler bib.”
It was a lift for the whole team, including Holly Brooks, who said that skiathlons were her nemesis: she finished 47th.
“The sun is out, it’s the Olympics, and some of my teammates had amazing races,” Brooks said at the finish. “Jessie Diggins, my teammate and my roommate, she said she had one of the best races of her life. So that’s really inspiring.”
It didn’t start out that way for either Diggins or Stephen. Diggins had a goal of skiing a steady pace and staying out of trouble. Mission accomplished, but tagging off in 27th was, at face value, not spectacular.
However, she wasn’t too far behind the leaders, and it’s a long race. It turned out that Diggins had paced herself perfectly and was soon flying past other racers, who began to flag on the skate course’s big uphill.
“Every race I’ve done at altitude I really feel like I’ve just blown up too early, or not gone out hard enough,” she said. “I think I really nailed the pacing today, and that’s a really cool feeling. Okay! I’m finally getting it!”
Stephen had hoped for a better classic leg, but for whatever reason, things just weren’t going her way.
“The classic was a bit tough for me today,” Stephen said. “…The skis were maybe a bit slick for today, but the energy maybe wasn’t quite where I wanted it to be on the classic either. It’s tricky conditions out there, it’s maybe klister, maybe hardwax, and that can be pretty tricky for me with my technique anyway. I just tried to keep my head in it, and just get really excited for the transition because the skate is always better for me. So I came into there and decided, it’s a new race.”
The first loop of the skate was where both Diggins and Stephen made their biggest moves. Both said they weren’t really aware of how many people they were passing, but it was a lot.
“The uphill is great,” Stephen said. “That’s where I felt the best. Except for the very last one, I definitely lost power there. But I mean, this big hill suits my technique and my build, so it’s fire up at the bottom and just think, it’s time to go!”
While the result is a best-ever Olympic performance for Stephen, as the most consistent U.S. distance skier over the last several seasons, she hoped for more. But Whitcomb was pleased at the performance, especially given the challenges she faced in the opening classic leg.
“Liz really struggled today on her classic, and she suffered consequently in the skate as well,” Whitcomb explained. “I was really, really encouraged to see good energy out of her, to see her bounce back from a very bad classic leg. The signs are good. She wasn’t able to close today just because I believe she was fairly taxed.”
Diggins, too, said she was pretty tired by the last time she faced the monster hill. But she had two things going for her. First, an injection of energy from a coca-cola feed.
“I fed three times, which is a lot for a 15 k,” she explained. “But it was really hot, we were all sweating, it was easy to start getting dehydrated. I didn’t want to cramp. So I think the extra caffeine and sugar really did help.”
Second, her parents were standing about two-thirds of the way up the hill.
“For me one of the coolest things was hearing my parents out there and knowing that they were out there cheering for me,” she said. “That helped so much and gave me such a boost so I was able to have a good finishing kick… It was great, right where you were kind of starting to bobble. You really need that extra oomph.”
Diggins said that she usually approaches the last kilometer of a race as if it’s a sprint qualifier, and that’s what she did today.
“I just start hammering,” Diggins said. “I was thinking about my parents out there watching, and I was like, man, they traveled all the way here. I need to put on a show for them.”
Both women said that their biggest focus is on the relay. Stephen has not yet decided whether she will race the 10 k classic, as it’s two days before the relay, and she “wants to be really fresh” for that.
And Diggins, too, is making it a priority. Among other races, she’ll sit out the team sprint, the discipline in which she became a World Champion last year with Kikkan Randall.
“At my age racing more than four out of the six would be pushing it,” she said. “I’m definitely going to be really careful to fully recover between each race, and the 4 x 5 relay is what I’m putting all my hopes on for. My biggest goal for years has been that.”
And the U.S. team will be relying on her, especially after her performance today.
“Today’s the reason why you see us put Jessie fourth in all these relays throughout the years,” Whitcomb said. “She can close. She can race on game day. I can’t name that many people who can’t do that, but Jessie is a closer.”
-Nat Herz contributed reporting.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.