TOBLACH, Italy – With many smiles, shrieks and leaps of joy, Jessie Diggins won Stage 6 of the Tour: a 5-kilometer freestyle individual start. It was the second of two huge wins for the U.S. women, following Sophie Caldwell’s Stage 4 classic-sprint victory on Tuesday in Oberstdorf, Germany.
Interestingly, the podium remained exactly the same between both races — with Heidi Weng in second and Ingvild Flugstad Østberg in third — except Diggins replaced Caldwell on the top step.
“What’s so cool about this team is we ride on each other’s successes,” Jessie exclaimed in an in-person interview after Friday’s race. “Seeing Sophie do it, we all train together, and we can do this! It really shows the strength of the team that we push each other and train so hard to get to this point where we can start putting together really good races. So this is a pretty sweet victory for the team.”
Diggins is now the fourth U.S. woman to win a World Cup race, and the first to do so in a modern distance race. (Kikkan Randall has won numerous freestyle sprints and a 3 k prologue, but nothing longer.)
A 24-year-old member of the U.S. Ski Team, Diggins was a 2015 World Championships silver medalist in the 10 k freestyle and won gold in the freestyle team sprint at 2013 World Championships with Randall. She also won the preceding World Cup freestyle team sprint with Randall in December 2012, but had yet to achieve an individual World Cup podium before Friday.
Her post-race demeanor was true to herself — bursting with enthusiasm, belief, positivity, and especially a team-focused mentality — times 100.
“I didn’t believe it,” Diggins said when asked about seeing her name in first place. “I mean, to come out on top in this field with those incredible women feels like doing the impossible. So that really speaks to how hard the [wax] techs have worked, how fast the skis were, the incredible cheering…”
Racing to First
Depending on how racers show up on a given day, the individual-start format can be anything from interesting to anti-climactic, and even nerve-racking.
Forty-six women started on Friday, heading out at 30-second intervals. After racing the clock and crossing the finish line, athletes are left waiting to see how their time stacks up against the rest of the field.
Early starters don’t have much to work with in terms of splits. The race consisted of a single 5 k loop, with gradual climbing out of the start and official timing points at 1.7 and 2.1 k.
Diggins started 24th and reached the first timing point in 4:28.9, which turned out to be the fourth-fastest time of the day. Then at the 2.1 k, her time ranked third, indicating she was accelerating.
“When the split at 2.1 came in that Jessie was 8 seconds out of the lead with everyone by, we knew that meant she could win,” U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb told FasterSkier afterward. “Nobody finishes this course more successfully than Jessie.”
What made her the best woman out there today? The answer lies largely in the subtle downhill profile of the latter part of the course.
“You are always working and you have to really work those downhills,” Diggins said of the Toblach course. “It is a great course for me because I love to V2 and I love those downhills where you just get in your little tuck and you just skate.”
From Afton, Minn., Diggins won Minnesota state championships three times, which is held at Giant’s Ridge. The end of the course is characterized by a similar, long downhill segment for the last kilometer or two leading out of the woods and right into the stadium.
Several coaches and race organizers on the Minnesota high-school scene remember the way Diggins would come flying down this hill in a bullet-like tuck, practically sitting on the back of her skis. From high-school meets all the way to the top podium spot in the World Cup, Jessie Diggins can truly work the downhills.
“She can lay down the fastest time day after day after day through terrain like this; she is a glider and she is a finisher,” Whitcomb explained. “[The course] suites Jessie’s strengths very well.”
“There are very few skiers in the world that can close down the final kilometer of a course like Jessie,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said in a team press release. “She was fierce and unrelenting on the downhills and flats leading back to the stadium; pushing extremely hard on her skis. We’ve been wowed by this ability of hers many times, most notably in the recent Lillehammer 4×5 k women’s relay.”
Diggins crossed the line in 13:15.5, “A new best time!” as stadium commentators exclaimed over the sound system, 15.7 seconds ahead of the previous leader; Germany’s Denise Herrmann, who started 11th. But half the field was still racing, including most of the seeded competitors, who stood the biggest chance at challenging Diggins’ time.
The waiting began — a system of delayed gratification. She didn’t know how well her time was going to hold up, and so she collected her skis and left the finishing pen, walking past broadcast reporters who didn’t bother to interview her yet while fielding a multitude of polite congratulatory remarks.
“Thank you! Thank you!” Diggins energetically replied.
Slowly, but surely, her time weathered more and more finishers, keeping that top spot. She had enough time to go change clothes — little did Diggins know she was changing in preparation for the podium ceremony.
Then came a moment of great excitement. Some of the remaining favorites were entering the stadium and finishing in rapid succession. Where would they stack up?
Norway’s Ragnhild Haga: not quite, as she was 8.4 seconds short for second initially, and fourth at the end of the day.
Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla: 12.3 seconds behind Diggins at the line would eventually be enough for seventh.
One by one, as each of these top athletes crossed the line, Diggins’ eyes and smile grew bigger and bigger. She could not believe it. “I thought, well, this is obviously a really good race, and… maybe, maybe I will be on the podium,” she recalled.
But they kept coming, unable to touch Diggins.
As Østberg — the clear leader at both timing points — cruised down into the stadium, the announcer bellowed, “Her pace is matching Diggins’ with a few hundred meters remaining,” and repeated the observation in several different languages.
“No, she is 1.5 seconds back from Diggins’ time,” he continued.
That put the overall Tour leader in second.
Therese Johaug, second to Østberg at the 2.1 k checkpoint, was ultimately unable to match Diggins nor Østberg and finished fifth, 9.6 seconds back.
Then came Weng, another Norwegian threat. “She could do it!” the announcer said.
Spectators watched the seconds tick by on the Jumbotron.
“She is into the final sprint, and ladies and gentlemen, this will be a fight to the end…”
As Weng lunged across the line: “No, Weng cannot beat Diggins. Jessie Diggins has kept the top time. Weng takes second, just nine-tenths of a second behind!”
Diggins melted to the ground in overwhelming excitement and disbelief. Weng and Østberg shared a hug of utter exhaustion just across the finish line before sincerely congratulating Diggins. Just 1.5 seconds separated the top three. “A day of very small margins,” as coach Whitcomb put it.
Diggins emphasized that, despite feeling good about the race, she certainly did not expect to win.
“I’m still in shock!” Diggins said as she awaited the awards ceremony. “I never thought that I would win it.”
Diggins and Weng accelerated through the end of the course into first and second, respectively. Just under seven seconds off the podium in fourth, Haga also had faster second-half splits, but not quite enough to reach Diggins or Weng. Østberg and Johaug both lost time and ranking on the second half of the race.
“I tried to open a bit slowly and get faster in the downhills,” Weng explained in a post-race press conference. “I think that was a very good tactic for me. … It’s a very hard race because you can overpower and it can go very good or it can go [bad] and you can [lose] many seconds in the end. It’s very hard to go five kilometres.”
Østberg in third ended up besting her teammate and biggest Tour rival, Johaug, by 8.1 seconds. She will continue to wear the red Tour leader’s bib heading into the last two stages in Val de Fiemme, Italy, after extending her overall lead to 25.3 seconds ahead of Johaug.
“It was a tight and hard race, and maybe I had a little [too] hard opening, different from the other racers, I guess,” Østberg said in the press conference. “In the last uphill my mother cheered for me, but my legs were just so tired I didn’t think I was gonna come to the finish. Another podium for me, and it’s so amazing that I’m still in the lead of the Tour de Ski. It’s unbelievable, for sure I didn’t believe it was possible. And 1.5 seconds from the win that’s amazing.”
After the stage win, Diggins improved to 10th overall, 6:50.2 behind Østberg.
A Proud U.S. Ski Team
Diggins’ win, piggybacking on Caldwell’s sprint victory just two days prior, provides a very notable marker for the overall success of the U.S. Ski Team.
“You need to have kind of everything perfect to have such a good race,” Diggins said in the press conference. “You have to have really good skis and your head has to be in the right place and then your body has to feel good, so it’s really exciting for us that it all worked out so many times this year.”
“It is totally surreal,” Whitcomb remarked. “It is totally surreal because we have never had such success in a small amount of time with two different athletes. [There are] so many guns on this team.”
Never before had the U.S. team racked up two stage wins by different athletes in the same Tour de Ski, which is in its 10th year. Randall won a prologue and a sprint stage in 2012/2013.
According to FIS, the U.S. joins Norway and Finland as the only nations with a history of two stage wins by different athletes in the same Tour. Aino-Kaisa Saarinen and Virpi Kuitunen won stages in 2007/2008.
“One thing is for sure, the Americans have proved they can for sure play with those Norwegians!!” teammate Sadie Bjornsen wrote in an email. She placed 13th on the day, 25.7 seconds behind Diggins.
The wax team and support staff can revel in the team’s recent successes as well.
“It speaks volumes to the work [head of service Oleg Ragilo] has put forward, the leadership that he has created out there…,” Whitcomb said. “When those guys can be rewarded with good results like this it makes us really happy for them.”
Bjornsen Up to 13th Overall
The 20th starter, heading out two minutes ahead of Diggins, Bjornsen initially finished fourth.
“I went out there today racing for the podium,” Bjornsen recalled after starting the day ranked 14th in the Tour. “I decided to go with no fear and see how long I could hold on for…. And that lasted about 2.5k… At which point I realized I was going to have to dig seriously deep to make it home.”
Her 1.7 k time held up as 10th fastest, 9.8 seconds behind Østberg, and at 2.1 k, Bjornsen sat in eighth, 5.8 seconds behind Diggins in third.
“I am proud for taking a chance… Because at some point it will work,” Bjornsen continued.
She improved one spot to 13th in the Tour, 7:58.8 out of the lead.
U.S. teammates Liz Stephen placed 26th on Friday (+41.5) to move up three places into 25th overall, just over 10 minutes back, Rosie Brennan finished 33rd (+54.4) for 34th overall, and Caitlin Gregg was 39th (+1:05.7) for 39th overall.
“I’m starting to feel more like myself everyday,” Brennan said during an in-person interview after the race. In the sixth stage of her first Tour de Ski, she started 41st on Friday, 30 seconds ahead of Weng.
“I was coming down the hill and Heidi had passed me, and I’m like, Well, I really hope she’s having a good one,” Brennan recalled. “I just saw out of the corner [of my eye], the screen and I saw Jessie’s name, and I’m like, God damn that’s awesome!”
Brennan plans to complete the Tour, ending with the final climb on Sunday.
“I don’t have a particular one event that’s way better than the other, so I think this type of tour really suits me,” she said. “I’m looking forward to chalking this one up to experience and coming back for more later.”
Also in her first-ever, eight-stage Tour, Gregg started 13th, one position ahead of Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk, on Friday. While Kowalczyk went on to finish 18th (+34), Gregg explained being caught by her was a good thing.
“I got caught by Kowalczyk at like 2 k, but then we actually skied together and that was awesome. It kind of lifted my momentum and I felt like my skis were really good,” Gregg said.
“I think I entered [the Tour] just not really knowing how it would go and maybe I’m a little off — I have been since I got over here,” Gregg added. “Every race … I don’t get those good race sensations when I’m racing. I’m actually going home on Monday and I’m pretty stoked to reset and recharge.”
The Tour continues in Val di Fiemme on Saturday with the women’s 10 k classic mass start and concludes with the 9 k freestyle climb up Alpe Cermis on Sunday.
— Alex Kochon and Harald Zimmer contributed reporting
About the Author: JoJo Baldus is a nordic skier from snowy Minneapolis, Minn. Currently living the dream as a volunteer journalist and photographer for FasterSkier while enjoying a gap year before starting at Macalester College in St. Paul. He could not be more excited to attempt to stagger across the finish line of 8 different WorldLoppet ski races this winter!