Jessie Diggins has her confidence back and it showed as she cruised to a 15th place finish in the World Cup 5 k freestyle interval start in Lillehammer, Norway.
Saturday’s 5/10 k race was the second stage of the weekend’s mini tour following Friday’s freestyle sprint.
Colder conditions and firm tracks made the women’s 5 k a fast race, with winner Therese Johaug of Norway posting a time of 12:33.7.
With Diggins (+39.0) leading the way, two other American women made it into the top 30. Sadie Bjornsen (+45.0) placed 20th while Liz Stephen (+48.3) placed 22nd.
After a less-than-ideal sprint where Bjornsen was the lone American to advance past qualification, Saturday’s improved results demonstrated that the US Ski Team has more to work with than races this season have demonstrated.
Diggins entered Saturday’s 5 k with conservative pacing to avoid blowing up on the final half of the course, which featured what she estimated to be a four-minute climb.
In addition to a conservative start, Diggins said that one of her main goals was to ski aggressively and efficiently on the downhills – where she said she lost most of her time in Friday’s sprint.
While it took a little verbal encouragement in the form of Diggins telling herself that “you can do this,” she managed to surpass any uneasiness and rocketed through the course.
Diggins explained she knew it was good day before crossing the finish line because everything she had raced so far was a blur.
“Looking back on today’s race there are things I can’t even remember because I was just so in the zone. I think that’s something that defines a good race for me – you’re just so focused that you can’t even remember what you’re thinking about,” she said in a phone interview.
Diggins said she still had energy at the end of the race and wished she had used it while attacking the fast course. According to USST Head Coach Chris Grover, the fact that Diggins still had energy was a good sign as it meant that the 23-year-old had even greater potential.
“She skied fantastic and she was in the mix right from the get-go. She had tight splits and really closed down on a few people that were skiing around her,” he said in a phone interview.
Back in 20th Bjornsen started the race even more conservatively, clocking in at 34th position at the 2.2 k mark.
Like Diggins, Bjornsen said that she was pacing to save energy for the big hill. In Bjorsen’s case, however, she explained she might have started too slow.
Despite her sluggish start, Bjornsen’s top-30 placement was the first time the 25-year-old earned individual points in a freestyle distance race. A strong classic skier, Bjornsen worked hard this summer to improve her skating technique.
“I have a tendency to take huge strokes that end up being quite slow. This summer I worked a lot on floating more, increasing my tempo, and keeping things moving faster,” she explained in a phone interview.
It seems that the work paid off.
“I know I have the ability to skate ski it’s just actually performing it. Today was fun because I feel like it finally came together for me. “
Stephen, the final American woman in the top-30, crossed the 2.2 k mark in 45th but was able to jump 25 places to 20th by 3.3 k before slipping back to 22nd at 5 k.
Stephen wrote that she skied the race like it was a 5 k relay leg rather than an individual race for motivational purposes.
“It makes me perform better than I would if I was just racing the clock. Relay day is when you race for your team and that is how any 5 k skate race feels to me, as if I am on the relay team and skiing for us all,” she wrote in an email.
The remaining members of the USST were far from the pace set by Diggins, Bjornsen, and Stephen.
In the women’s race the next finishers were Caitlin Gregg and Kikkan Randall who place 62nd and 63rd.
Randall, who hasn’t placed in the 60s since 2006, wrote in an email that she felt stuck in a low gear for the majority of the race. However she explained her effort was one step closer to reaching racing shape this season, especially after Friday’s sprint where she placed 43rd.
The final two U.S. women, Ida Sargent and Sophie Cladwell, finished in 79th and 84th positions.
USST Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb, said Friday that Caldwell would treat Saturday’s 5 k as a workout rather than a race, due to her recovery from a broken elbow in October.
In the men’s 10 k Erik Bjornsen was the top American finisher in 51st, 1:13.2 back from race winner Martin Sundby of Norway.
Bjornsen finished his first 5 k loop in 35th after a strong start, but was unable to hold his pace for the remainder of the race.
“I wasn’t able to sustain the pace I had started but I was still able to recover some on the few rest sections… I struggled for a few kilometers but I was able to pull it together for the last couple kilometers,” he wrote in an email.
Bjornsen was followed by Simi Hamilton in 74th, Andy Newell in 103rd, and Reese Hanneman in 108th positions.
As the team wrapped up its second race day in Lillehammer, Grover said that all the USST skiers were signed up to compete in Sunday’s 10/15 k classic pursuit. However, at the time of the interview, he said that it was still uncertain if Newell would start, as he was carrying fatigue and possibly needing rest to focus on the upcoming Davos, Switzerland sprint.
He also explained that while the team saw improved results Saturday, it doesn’t mean his athletes are at full racing potential.
“I don’t think we’re going to have anything extraordinary as the team is still working into the season,” Grover said.
The top ranked American headed into Sunday’s race is Sadie Bjornsen who with start in 17th position and attempt to improve her standing throughout the 10 k race. She will start 1:20 behind mini tour leader Marit Bjørgen.
She explained that she had no concrete goals for the race and that her main focus was to ski with strength and “conquer the hills.”
Diggins will enter tomorrow’s pursuit ranked 21st followed by Liz Stephen in 35th. Randall is ranked 63rd followed by Gregg in 65th, Ida Sargent in 77th, and Caldwell in 84th.
In the men’s 15 k classic pursuit, Bjornsen is the USST’s first starter in 53rd followed by Hamilton in 73rd, Newell in 97th and Hanneman in 108th as the last starter.
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.