U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb may have foreshadowed the season in November, saying Jessie Diggins was “just getting started” after dominating the U.S. team’s opening weekend of European racing in Gällivare, Sweden.
True to Whitcomb’s prediction, the 24-year-old Diggins, of the U.S. Ski Team (USST) and Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 Team, maintained momentum through 32 World Cup starts, including two eight-stage Tours. Then, finishing out the season in the U.S., she won both individual races at SuperTour Finals earlier this week and topped it off with a national title in the 30-kilometer classic mass start on Saturday in Craftsbury, Vt.
And she did so by winning by more than a minute.
Diggins didn’t waste any time setting her preferred pace on Saturday, breaking away from the 43-woman pack on the first of nine loops around the Craftsbury Outdoor Center’s entirely manmade trails. Despite a severe lack of natural snow in the East this winter, Craftsbury created and stockpiled enough artificial snow to lay out a roughly 3.5 k loop for this week of racing.
Starting in the stadium at the highest point of the course, the loop wove down to the low point and began climbing again for more than a kilometer back to the stadium. Prime sprint bonuses for the women’s race were at the 3 k mark on the course, about halfway up the long climb, on laps three and six.
Diggins claimed both $125 bonuses without anyone anywhere near her.*
With about a 15-second gap on the first lap, she extended her lead to 30 seconds by lap two then 45 seconds by lap three.
In an in-person post-race interview, Diggins explained she tried to “get as many laps in before the break before it turned to slush,” she said of the conditions, with direct sunlight softening exposed sections of the course as temperatures rose above 40 degrees late Saturday morning. “After the first lap, I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to do this on my own.’ ”
Although 30 kilometers is a long distance to ski alone, Diggins used the solo racing to her advantage.
“The way the downhills are, I really like skiing by myself because the best line goes from one side of the track to the other,” she said. “So when I’m by myself I don’t have to worry about getting in anyone else’s way.”
In addition, the multiple-lap course meant she wasn’t completely alone.
“It was kind of cool because as I was lapping through I got to ski with some junior girls and that was really motivating,” she recalled.
Diggins continued to increase the gap while skiing uncontested, and posted the fastest laps on all but the last two laps (where her lap times ranked third and fifth, respectively). By the eighth of nine laps, she was about 1:27 ahead of her USST teammate Ida Sargent, who was leading the chase pack in second. One lap later, Diggins finished first in 1:29:59.4, more than a minute and 3 seconds clear of second place.
“This was kind of like a dream ending, especially in a classic 30 k, which was never my strongest race,” Diggins said.
Previously, Diggins had raced about half a dozen 30 k classic races in her career. She didn’t finish two of them, but in her first-ever 30 k, a classic mass start at 2011 Spring Series in Sun Valley, Idaho, Diggins placed third. Saturday marked her best result in the 30 k classic distance since.
Although it was the ideal end to an impressive several months, including five World Cup podiums and an overall eighth-place finish in the 2015/2016 World Cup, the biggest motivator for Diggins was putting a period on the season.
“I’m pretty ready to be done,” she said. “It was a great season and I am really happy with it, but it was also really mentally taxing because of the number of the races I did. I didn’t skip any World Cup races and I would do it again because it is a great opportunity to get some great races in, but now I’m pretty crushed.”
Behind Diggins, the race for the podium came down to three USST members over the final lap. The chase pack was whittled down lap by lap, largely due to Ida Sargent and Liz Stephen’s repeated surges.
About 10 racers remained together in pursuit of Diggins on lap three, but that group split in two on lap four, with Kaitlynn Miller — Sargent’s teammate on the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) — leading the six-woman chase, and another three hanging slightly behind in a second group.
By the seventh lap, Sargent led the chase up the long ascent back to the stadium, 1:25 behind Diggins, with Stephen and another CGRP teammate Caitlin Patterson right there with her. Miller hung a few seconds off the back and kept them within reach for the next lap. By lap nine, however, she was out of contention and finished fifth, 1:41 behind Diggins and 26.3 seconds out of fourth place.
Ahead of her, Sargent threw an attack on the final climb that neither Patterson nor Stephen were able to match. She entered the stadium alone to secure second, 1:03.4 behind Diggins.
“I was seeded 35th because I’ve struggled with my distance results this year on the World Cup for a variety of reasons so I had a lot of moving up to do out of the start,” Sargent wrote in an email. “I was surprised how quickly I was able to get to the front again, but by the time I made it up there Jessie had already gapped the pack … so I settled in the pack.
“By the end of the eighth lap I realized I wasn’t going to lose those girls so I decided to just take it easy and wait for a sprint,” she added. “But then when we got to the bottom of the downhill I could feel like I was starting to pull away so I went for it at the bottom of the long climb or about 1.5km out. I’ve been skiing at Craftsbury since I was a little kid so I’ve been up that hill more times than I could begin to count so I knew what to expect. I felt great today and we had awesome skis. It has been so fun to finish out the season on my home course.”
Sargent finished 7.9 seconds ahead of Patterson, who took third, and Stephen finished 3.4 seconds later in fourth.
“Ida and Liz were really strong on the climbs and I was inspired by their tempo and just tried to match them,” Patterson recalled in a post-race interview.
“Ida deserved that second place in every sense,” Stephen said afterward. “She skied such a strong race, I’m really impressed.”
Although Stephen had gained a small gap on Patterson when she chased Sargent up the last climb, it left her dangling tantalizingly close to Patterson with not much left in the tank. Patterson seized the opportunity and reeled Stephen in and they crested the final rise to a field before the stadium together. There, Patterson gained some ground, keeping Stephen at bay behind her in the last few hundred meters to the finish.
“I gave it all on the hill and didn’t save any for the end,” Stephen recalled. “I’m glad I didn’t have to do it [all nine laps] alone today. It was nice to ski with some ladies I don’t ski with very much.”
For both Stephen and Patterson, it was a solid culmination to the season after battling illness in the last month. Patterson made a last-minute decision to skip the Ski Tour Canada because of illness.
“It has been a really good season overall, but to have that low point of not being able to race at all was really interesting, but I just had to channel my focus to training for Spring Series,” Patterson said.
While she came out a little too hot earlier in the week and reflected she might have burnt out early in the 10 k freestyle race, where she placed seventh, Patterson was pleased to end the season with the overall SuperTour win. That will ensure she starts next season on the World Cup as the Continental Cup leader.
Stephen withdrew from the Ski Tour Canada after the Stage 4 classic sprint in Canmore, Alberta, and traveled home early to recover. Overall, she considered Saturday a positive end to a roller-coaster season.
“I’ve had some struggles this year enjoying all of it,” she said. “It was nice to end it on a beautiful day and with a race I was proud of.”
As the curtains close on the 2015/2016 season, the athletes are looking forward to some much-needed rest, recovery and time at home for the skiers who have spent the last four months away racing on the World Cup.
*In addition to a total of $250 in sprint bonuses (awarded by a local sponsor, FairPoint), Diggins earned an additional $1,200 (awarded by USSA) for winning Saturday’s national 30 k. In comparison, the winners of each of the SuperTour individual races earlier this week (10/15 k freestyle and classic sprint) each banked $750.
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting
New to the FasterSkier team, Kaitlyn is a silent sports all-arounder, competing in cross-country skiing, cycling and triathlon since graduating from the University of Michigan, where she ran cross country and track. Kaitlyn is intrigued by the complexities of cross-country ski racing and is excited to start in the elite women’s field at the 2016 Birkie.