Jessie Diggins toed the line of the women’s 1.7-kilometer freestyle sprint final Tuesday in Gatineau, Quebec, for the opening day of Ski Tour Canada, filled with the familiar faces of World Cup sprint powerhouses. However, this time, the matchup was held on the other side of the Atlantic on her home turf.
With the rare opportunity to compete in World Cup races in North America, Diggins, of the U.S. Ski Team and Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 Team, meant business and she got down to it from the start.
Diggins kicked off the day with the second-fastest qualifying time, 2.09 seconds behind Sweden’s Hannah Falk of Sweden, who topped the qualifier in 3:32.76. Then heat after heat, Diggins moved through the field with ease, although the multiple crashes throughout the women’s heats proved it was anything but easy.
“For me this race is all about trying to find the window because it is a really hard course to pass on. I was always thinking about where I could go,” Diggins explained in a post-race interview.
Racing in the first quarterfinal, Diggins took command of the heat just before the two-minute mark and never relented. After taking the lead, she held off a charging Ingvild Flugstad Østberg of Norway in the final straightaway to win the heat by 0.45 seconds in 3:32.93.
In the first semifinal she faced a field that looked like a World Cup final, including Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla and Østberg as well as Sweden’s Ida Ingemarsdotter.
Early in the heat, Diggins hung in fifth in a compact field. The curving course made passing difficult and it looked like it might turn into a six-way sprint on the homestretch. However, Diggins found the window she had been waiting for and seized it, powering into the lead.
She established a gap in the final several hundred meters, but eased up as she knew she had secured a spot in the final and crossed the line barely behind Falla, who won the heat in 3:33.86. Diggins automatically advanced in second just 0.02 seconds back. Both Ingemarsdotter in third (+0.47) and Østberg in fourth (+0.8) advanced as lucky losers out of that semifinal.
Diggins was two-for-two in pulling off well-executed races, but the real test was yet to come. The final included all of the usual World Cup sprinting suspects: three Norwegians — Falla, Østberg and Heidi Weng — and Sweden’s Ingemarsdotter and Stina Nilsson.
Notably, the top qualifier, Falk did not advance out of her quarterfinals as she collided with Ida Sargent of the U.S., taking them both out of contention. The second semifinal was plagued with falls as Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla crashed just after the start and another scuffle occurred between Finland’s Krista Parmakoski and Germany’s Hanna Kolb, compromising all three women’s chances at advancing to the semifinals.
In the final, the 22-year-old Nilsson led out of the gate while Diggins shadowed her and the pack remained tight behind them. Diggin’s ideal positioning didn’t last, as Falla and Østberg slipped in behind Nilsson, shuffling Diggins back.
Falla took control on the final hill and gapped the field on the final stretch. Heading into the homestretch, Nilsson chased in second, but Diggins was charging hard on the outside lane and gaining ground. Although it looked like Diggins might be able to pull off silver, an icy patch nearly shot Diggins’ skis out from underneath her. A quick hop saved her from a fall but cost her the fraction of a second she needed to catch Nilsson.
“I was just really happy I caught my bobble and didn’t lose more than one place,” Diggins said. “I am really proud of my effort and I am very happy.”
Falla won in 3:34.0, Nilsson took second place, 0.73 seconds later, and Diggins finished third, 0.87 seconds behind Falla and 0.14 out of second.
Diggins’ third place was her second-consecutive sprint podium after achieving silver in Lahti, Finland, a week and a half ago. U.S. teammate Simi Hamilton also reached the a podium in third, marking the first time an American male and female have finished on a World Cup podium on the same day, according to USSA.
A dual citizen of Canada, Diggins explained she was feeling the love in Gatineau.
“I heard someone yell, ‘Marry me!’ right when there’s a silence [during the final],” she recalled with a laugh. “And there was this big pause, like, ‘Well, answer the guy!’ But in all seriousness, it was great. I could hear my parents out there, and it was really cool to see so many American flags and Canadian flags.
“For me, it really does feel like home ground because so much of my family is Canadian,” Diggins added. “Anywhere in North America that I’m racing I’m just so pumped.”
Rounding out the final, Weng crossed the line in fourth (+1.20), followed by Østberg in fifth (+1.30) and Ingemarsdotter in sixth (+1.60).
With her win, Falla extends her lead in the Sprint World Cup by 67 points over Østberg and takes the lead in the Ski Tour Canada (STC) standings after Day 1. Diggins is listed as second overall, 5 seconds back, and Nilsson third (+7.0).
“I knew it was important to be in front on the last climb,” Falla said in the post-race press conference. “So before the last climb I tried to get the lead, and I succeeded with that. Then I was in first around the last corner, and my possibilities were strong. I feel my shape is really good right now.”
U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover commented on Diggins and Hamilton in a USSA press release.
“Jessie and Simi were incredible all day, starting with both of them qualifying in second,” Grover said. “The race course was curvy and tight making passing really challenging. Once the heats began, both Jessie and Simi were masterful when it came to making space in which to pass their competitors. They made gaps open for themselves and timed their podium bids perfectly.”
Canada’s MacIsaac-Jones Breaks Through
For Canada, one woman reached the heats: 20-year-old Maya MacIsaac-Jones of the Rocky Mountain Racers in Canmore, Alberta.
Originally from Athabasca, Alberta, MacIsaac-Jones entered the STC as the NorAm sprint leader. Gatineau stood as her eighth World Cup start and first time qualifying for the heats after narrowly missing the top 30 in the freestyle sprint in Planica, Slovenia, where she finished 31st in January.
On Tuesday, MacIsaac-Jones was on the other side of the cutoff, qualifying in 30th (+12.92). She went on to finish sixth in the first quarterfinal, 3.92 seconds behind Diggins for 29th overall.
“It really means a lot for me to be in the points today,” MacIsaac-Jones said afterward. “I hope this will help inspire the other Canadian skiers on the tour with me and I hope this shows we are capable of being in the mix.”
After achieving her goal of scoring World Cup points, the young sprint specialist is now setting her sights on racing close to home in Canmore.
“I am hoping to be able to stay in the Tour until the Canmore stages,” MacIsaac-Jones said. “That will be pretty tough with a couple distance races coming up, but that is my goal.”
The American women once again showed their depth, qualifying four in the top 30. Sadie Bjornsen posted the eighth-fastest qualifying time (+5.80), Sophie Caldwell qualified in 26th (+12.45) and Ida Sargent reached the heats in 28th (+12.87). However, bad luck in the quarterfinals kept these three Americans from moving on with Diggins.
In quarterfinal 2, Caldwell was positioned in third heading into the final section of the course, but became tangled with another skier. This sent her spiraling out of control, but she was able to stay on her feet in an impressive recovery. However, the mishap put her out of contention when she finished sixth and 17 seconds behind Falla as the winner of that heat. Overall, Caldwell placed 28th.
“It’s part of ski racing; I just got stepped on and kind of spun in a 180 and by the time I turned around, it was a little too late,” Caldwell said. “It was a bummer to end that way today, but luckily there are two more sprints to come.”
In quarterfinal 3, Sargent crashed with Falk and did not advance, finishing fifth in the heat, 18 seconds behind Germany’s Sandra Ringwald as the winner, while Falk was relegated to last.
“On the first steeper downhill on the first lap, coming off the climb, Hanna Falk went left. I was coming up on the left side of people, trying to go wide and use my momentum to go around,” Sargent explained. “She went wide and cut in front of me so then I went super-wide and then I went back and tried to go inside, and she cut back inside. … The third time [we went back and forth] our skis clipped and I went down. I got up as quickly as I could and tried to keep hammering because I was like, ‘Who knows? It’s a sprint race. Somebody else could go down,’ or whatever, but it didn’t happen. … I guess she got relegated for that, which is good, but it doesn’t change my race.”
Overall, Sargent ended up 24th for her second-best skate sprint result of the season.
“I know it’s not the U.S., but there’s people out on course everywhere,” Sargent said of the STC atmosphere. “I couldn’t stop smiling when I was skiing around because I knew so many friends and family out there and supporters. The North American ski community is stronger than ever right now. It’s gonna be a fun tour.”
Bjornsen also competed in quarterfinal 3, finishing fourth in the heat, 0.88 seconds behind Ringwald, who won with the second-slowest time of the five quarterfinals. That put Bjornsen in 17th overall.
“I wasn’t able to put in the moves that I wanted to, so it wasn’t what I was hoping for,” Bjornsen said. “But it’s a long tour and Day 1, it’s a great way to start.”
The U.S. and Canada were also represented by several other skiers, which finished outside the top 30. Skiing for the U.S., Rosie Brennan (Alaska Pacific University/USST) placed 38th, Annie Hart (SMST2) was 46th, Liz Stephen (USST) 59th, Kaitlynn Miller (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) 61st, Katherine Ogden (SMS/USST) 62nd, Chelsea Holmes (APU) 65th, Jennie Bender (Bridger Ski Foundation) 70th.
Competing for Canada, Dahria Beatty (Alberta World Cup Academy/CNST) finished 45th, Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt (CNST) was 49th, Cendrine Browne (Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre/CNST) 55th, Andrea Dupont (RMR) 56th, Jenn Jackson (NDC Thunder Bay) 58th, Alannah Maclean (NDC Thunder Bay) 63rd, Sophie Carrier-Laforte (CNEPH) 64th, Emily Nishikawa (CNST) 66th, Marie Corriveau (CNEPH/National Junior Team) 67th, Katherine Stewart-Jones (NDC Thunder Bay) 68th and Annika Hicks (Canmore) 71st.
— Gerry Furseth, Alex Slobodian, Alex Kochon, François Léger Dionne, and Harald Zimmer contributed
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.