Returning to Falun, Sweden, was exciting for some members of the U.S. Ski Team. Jessie Diggins, for example, made history along with teammate Caitlin Gregg when the pair went 2-3 in the 2015 World Championships 10-kilometer skate.
For Sadie Bjornsen, the memories weren’t as happy, and she tried to forget them before Saturday’s 5 k classic individual start, the first World Cup back at the venue since the championships.
“I really struggled at World Championships here last year,” said Bjornsen, who had a top individual finish of 19th in the classic sprint and a tough relay leg. “I was certainly not happy with how my results ended up. So I was trying to forget that and believe in my ability to make classic work in tricky conditions.”
Despite two very different backgrounds on the challenging Falun course, both excelled on Saturday. Diggins finished fifth, 37.2 seconds behind race winner Therese Johaug of Norway, and Bjornsen seventh, 44.8 seconds back.
“Absolutely a breakthrough performance in classic for Jessie,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said. “We haven’t had many top fives in women’s distance classic in history… So that was huge, a great race for her, great race for Sadie.”
“It was by far my best classic race I’ve ever had,” Diggins agreed. “To have two of us in the top ten today is really awesome.”
Both had to excel in unusual snow conditions. Bjornsen was excited to find central Sweden “wintery” and with some natural snow, but that was mixed in with manmade snow which had kept the course open through the winter.
“You had to really do a special kick today,” Bjornsen explained. “You couldn’t mule kick, which, ideally, I want to mule kick.”
Diggins gave kudos to the wax team, which gave the team extremely competitive skis. While the Norwegians had aired on the side of more glide, sometimes slipping hard on the uphills, the Americans kicked up the Mörderbacken and were able to keep their gains on the downhills as well.
“I was out on course about an hour and 15 minutes before my race,” Diggins said. “That’s quite a warmup, but it’s worth it. In a skate race you don’t have to test so much because you’re looking for the glide and the feel. In classic you’re adding that extra variable of, okay, they’re fast, but can I get up the hill on them? You have to plan a little extra.”
Diggins already knew that the course agreed with her, after a phenomenal skate race at World Championships. She tried to apply the same strategy in the 5 k classic: going hard up the hill, but not so hard she blew up, and then working the more gradual rolling sections of the course where she believed she could excel.
Diggins won her first individual World Cup earlier this season, and like the World Championships silver medal, that win came in a skate race.
So to break through on the international stage in classic was particularly satisfying.
“It feels wonderful because I’ve been working so hard for so long to get better at classic,” she said of her top-five finish. “I want to be an all-arounder. I want to be competitive in every race and every technique and every distance. So to have it work out today and to just feel confident in my ability to classic ski, instead of thinking of myself as a skater just thinking of myself as a skier.”
Bjornsen considers herself a strong classic skier, but had been struggling recently, including on Thursday in Stockholm where she missed the top-30 cutoff to make the heats in the classic sprint.
So in a way she, too, had to go into the race with a strong belief in herself.
“The classic skiing has been a little bit of a wave for me,” Bjornsen said. “We’ve had a lot of classic races in a row now – four. And I just hadn’t been able to figure out ski stuff. I’ve been experimenting with trying to go slicker and trying to make it so my skis can go faster. I committed to trying that in Stockholm and it didn’t work… every day is a new day. I love 5 k classic and so today I put on my 5 k classic pants and went for it.”
Also racing for the U.S., Rosie Brennan narrowly missed the points in 32nd (+1:22.4), Liz Stephen finished 38th (+1:28.0), Caitlin Patterson placed 40th (+1:29.4), Sophie Caldwell 43rd(+1:32.1), and Jennie Bender 76th (+2:49.4).
Going into Sunday’s race, a 10 k freestyle mass start, Diggins is predictably fired up.
“I’m really excited,” she gushed. “I’m really hoping to give it everything I’ve got, which I don’t have a problem with … I don’t think we’ve had a mass start skate this year, so I’m excited to go out and ski with these girls.”
Bjornsen will sit the race out, resting up for the Ski Tour Canada after a long season already including the entire Tour de Ski and a grueling Holmenkollen 30 k last weekend.
Instead, Stephen, Patterson, Brennan, Bender, and Ida Sargent will join Diggins on the start line.
For Canada, Emily Nishikawa finished 64th (+2:08.6) and Andrea Dupont 67th (+2:24.6).
— Jason Albert and Gerry Furseth 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.