Consider it a test drive. That’s how several members of the U.S. Ski Team viewed this weekend’s season-opening International Ski Federation (FIS) races in Gällivare, Sweden. And while a win or result close to it is always welcomed, it wasn’t essential. No need to go 100 miles per hour on the first try.
That said, if you start fast, go with it. Jessie Diggins, a 24-year-old A-team member who took silver in the 10-kilometer freestyle at the 2015 World Championships last season, kicked off this season with a win on Saturday in the Gällivare classic sprint, then repeated the feat in Sunday’s 10 k freestyle — what’s becoming her signature event.
While it was great to get some good feelings on snow and back-to-back victories to go with it, Diggins said in a post-race phone interview that it was more about taking “inventory of where [we] are and what else needs to be improved, as well as a good reminder of warmups, race routines, and testing skis.”
She added that the wins were a huge confidence boost going into the World Cup season, which starts Friday in Kuusamo, Finland. And she was pleased her offseason of technique work translated to results on snow.
She was the fastest in a women’s field of 38 on Sunday, winning the 10 k in 25:08.7 by 10.7 seconds over Petra Novakova of the Czech Republic. For the second-straight day, the U.S. had two on the podium with Caitlin Gregg in third, 30.1 seconds behind Diggins. It was a flashback to February, when the two shared the podium at 2015 World Championships, where Diggins placed second in the 10 k skate and Gregg was third.
Diggins had started second to last ahead of another teammate, Liz Stephen. Gregg went out 30 seconds ahead of Diggins and kept herself in contention in the top-three throughout the race.
At the finish, Novakova originally bumped Czech teammate Karolina Grohova out of the lead, then stayed 19.4 seconds ahead of Gregg to hold onto first. That is, until Diggins crossed the finish line.
“The course was awesome,” Diggins said. “It’s a challenging track with quite a bit of climbing and twisty, turny descents which doesn’t allow for a lot of rest. It is a great representation of the type of courses we race on the World Cup.”
While she had fun out there, she also made up a lot of time on those who started ahead of her. Diggins jumped out to an early lead, 0.4 seconds ahead of Gregg and 0.7 seconds ahead of Novakova in third, by the first checkpoint.
Halfway through the race, she held a 3.5-second lead over Novakova and Gregg was 17.6 seconds back in third. On the second of two laps, Diggins caught Gregg, her 30-second woman, and the two finished together.
“I was psyched when Jessie caught me because I felt like I was skiing well so I knew she was skiing well!” Gregg recalled in an email. “I cheered for her and tried to hang on. As I started following her stride I felt myself actually relax and start skiing way better! I tried to keep the pressure on her because I knew she was fighting for the win without stepping on her skis! I thought it was great to follow her on most of the second lap and it certainly helped me reach the podium!”
Gregg wasn’t exactly sure where she stood throughout the race, but she had a sense she was in the running for a top result.
“Both Jessie and Petra are fantastic skaters so it was a solid result for me,” Gregg wrote, a day after placing seventh in the classic sprint. “My skis were fantastic and I knew I was moving well on the course.
“This has by far been my best preparation season ever,” the 35-year-old U.S. Ski Team rookie added. “I started working with [personal coach] Tom Jorgenson after I came home from Norway this summer and he had helped me immensely in my training and technique! I feel like my fitness is really good right now and I am very excited to start the season.”
Eighteen seconds behind Gregg, Stephen placed fourth, and another 1.8 seconds later, the fourth U.S. woman in the top five, Rosie Brennan was fifth.
“Our coaches were out there giving splits and cheering as were our waxers,” Stephen wrote in an email. “We had a great group out there pushing us on and encouraging us to rally. The splits just encourage me, but I was not focused on the result out there today, I was just focused on the getting back into the groove of it all and maximizing my time taking corners with loaded legs at high speed.”
On Saturday, Stephen — a well-known distance skier and hill climber — made the rounds and placed ninth in the classic sprint.
“My goals for the weekend were to put a bib on and remember what it feels like to be ski racing on snow again,” she explained. “Snow brings its own set of new challenges and it can take a bit of time to get used to those again. I have a constant project on improving my downhills, so working on that the last couple of races has been on my mind, though today’s race was not my best performance on the downhill skills portion but, it has it’s ups and downs like any project.”
Stephen added that she needed some more races to get into the form she wants to be in. Brennan was looking for the same.
“I know my base fitness is quite high so it is a matter of finding the right balance of rest, quality intensity, and race starts,” Brennan wrote in an email. “I felt my race was solid, but I think I have another level in me that I hope to see as the season progresses.”
Between those four U.S. women, that was everyone from the women’s team that competed. Ida Sargent rested this weekend as she’s been fighting a cold and is aiming to be healthy when the World Cup starts next week, U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb explained. Sadie Bjornsen also did not race as she was coming off an illness from last week.
“Sadie is healthy and back training, but the stomach bug she had earlier in the week isn’t something we wanted to test,” Whitcomb wrote in an email. “We know what happens with that test. She is in great spirits and had a productive workout tonight.”
As for the results, with the U.S. notching two podiums and sweeping third through fifth, Whitcomb said in a phone interview that “the results are fun. It’s great to get a podium regardless of what show you are playing in, but the important thing is they are looking really good in what they are doing.”
He credited Diggins with “another brilliant day” and said he was excited to see what she can do on the World Cup this season.
“People can be scared of skiing fast early in the season, but to be honest, Jessie is just getting started,” he said.
He added that the team’s wax crew was another highlight of the weekend, especially with new members that service chief Oleg Ragilo assembled this year. Diggins agreed.
“The wax technicians did a great job, we had fast and consistent skis all weekend,” she said.
Temperatures were cooler on Sunday, around -11 degrees Celsius (12 degrees Fahrenheit).
Canada’s lone female in Gällivare, Emily Nishikawa placed ninth (+2:35.2), a day after finishing sixth in the sprint.
“I was happy to start the season with a good race!” she told Cross Country Canada after Saturday’s race. “I’ve had a good summer of training and feeling strong coming into the race season so I was really excited to race…”
Monday marks a travel day for most, with the World Cup skiers heading to Kuusamo for four days of preparation before the season begins in earnest with a classic sprint on Friday.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.