Natural snowfall during a competition isn’t something many World Cup athletes have seen this season. With a steady stream of snowflakes descending onto the women’s 10-kilometer skate course on Saturday in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, American Jessie Diggins proved that as the snow flies, so can she.
“I mean, there was a snow storm going on, but I love that,” Diggins, who reached the podium in the freestyle individual start by placing third, 9.4 seconds behind the race winner, Norway’s Therese Johaug, said in an interview.
“I just kept thinking, it’s just like Falun and it worked out great there, so I can ski in anything,” the 24-year-old Minnesota native added, referring to her silver-medal finish in the 10 k freestyle interval start event at the 2015 World Championships. “If I can ski in snow at World Championships, I can do it here, too.”
With a World Championships silver medal, an individual World Cup title, and Saturday’s overall third place podium finish, Diggins demonstrated that her ability to push herself as an individual is close to unbeatable.
“I love individual starts because it’s just you out there,” she said. “I can ski the downhills how I want to, there’s nobody elbowing me or stepping on my poles and in my business. It’s just you and the course and you go ski that course as fast a you possibly can and that’s it.”
Diggins started in bib 36, just behind Canada’s Maya Macisaac-Jones. One of the favorites for the day’s distance skate event, Charlotte Kalla of Sweden, started four places ahead of her.
After just the first 500 meters of the course, Diggins trailed Kalla by just 0.2 of a second.
“I think some of the challenges of the course are right out of the start,” Diggins explained. “There’s a tiny little downhill drop, but then after that you’re really working all the way up until the highest point of the course. So you have to pace it well and figure out how to push through all those different sections and I think I definitely went out quite hot.”
Diggins did push the pace hard in the beginning, taking the lead over Kalla by one second by the 3.5 k mark.
“I was getting splits, but I also told the coaches to give me technique cues,” Diggins explained. “For me, splits are awesome and it’s sweet to know where you’re at, but it doesn’t make me race any harder. I’m racing as hard as I can anyway, so for me, what I was telling the coaches to do was say specific words that would remind me how to ski fast.”
As more heavy hitters got on course, including the overall race winner Johaug, Diggins maintained mental control of her race.
“When I’m out there I’m thinking about how I’m going to ski the next section, when am I going to switch from V2 to V1, I’m thinking about my cue words, like strong core…when I have a good race is when I can stay focused,” she said.
At 5.5 k in, Diggins saw a glimpse of second place and pulled ahead of Norwegians Heidi Weng and Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen. Jacobsen, ultimately passed Diggins for second place, 4.6 seconds behind her teammate Johaug, while Weng dropped back to sixth 31.1 seconds back.
“The wheels were coming off towards the end of the race,” said Diggins of the last few kilometers, “but I think I was able to hold it together just long enough.”
Along with Diggins’ third place finish, the U.S. women saw three other skiers crack the top 30 amidst Saturday’s snowfall.
“It’s funny sometimes you look outside and you see the snow coming and you get really stressed because you’re thinking it’s just going to be slower and slower and maybe it’s not going to be fair,” Sadie Bjornsen, who finished in 14th overall, 1:11.3 seconds back from Johaug, said in a phone interview. “But I just try to stay optimistic and excited. Skate skiing is always a challenge for me, so the weather brought a fun new twist to it. More than anything I think I was just so excited to see winter.”
With many of this year’s races taking place on manmade snow and shortened loops, Bjorsen believes she is not alone in her excitement for the race day precipitation, even if it added an extra challenge.
“It’s been a sad winter of feeling like we’re just doing this crazy sport where we’re skiing on a fake trail in the middle of the summer and sometimes you lose the vibe of ski racing with that,” Bjornsen said, “So I feel like these past couple days, everybody on the World Cup is smiling and just has this extra energy and I would totally crack it down to the fact that we’re seeing winter for the first time,” she added.
Bjornsen, who spent time after the Tour de Ski recovering from illness, also pointed out that the “winter” skiing brings out a different level of racing.
“Today I didn’t feel like I was having a spectacular race, but I just kept pushing,” Bjornsen said. “Even when I crossed the line I had no idea how I was doing because even though I felt like I went as hard as I could, I didn’t feel on fire. But I think that’s a result of not having skied in winter yet this year. When you’re skiing in winter, you don’t feel like you’re flying.”
The two other U.S. women to also finish in the top 30 were Liz Stephen and Rosie Brennan. Stephen’s time was 1:18.4 behind Johaug’s winning mark, and Brennan’s was 1:40.1 back.
“I am satisfied with today’s race,” Brennan wrote in an email. “The conditions were slow so it was hard to get positive feelings out there an starting as early as I did. I wasn’t sure how I was doing for much of the race, but I tried to just focus on working every section and maintaining the pace I was traveling at. I am starting to feel more like myself racing. I think the Tour helped me get into gear. It was unfortunate to end up on the backside of a tight group, I guess that will leave me hungry for more.”
The fifth American to compete on Saturday, SuperTour leader Chelsea Holmes, race to 37th place overall, 1:59.7 seconds back from Johaug.
“It’s been so fun to have all that hard work and all the hours of training pay off in such a big way,” Diggins said of her third place finish, “Of course it’s fun for the team because we all train together, so if I can do it, anyone can do it. It’s positive momentum moving forward and to have four girls in the points today was just awesome.”
With a strong individual and team showing on Saturday, the U.S. women prepare for Sunday’s 4 x 5 k relay event. Sophie Caldwell will lead the team out in the first classic leg, and tag off to Bjornsen for another classic leg. The switch to freestyle will be headed by Stephen in the third leg, and Diggins will anchor the relay team in the final freestyle leg.
“For me a crucial part of racing well is loving what I’m doing and having fun with my teammates,” Diggins added, “And I feel really lucky to be on a team that works really hard to create that environment.”
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.