Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Sophie Caldwell and Dartmouth Nordic Assistant, Hilary McNamee.
While the glamour of racing in a suit sporting the American stars and stripes at a World Cup is a tough experience to beat for many U.S. cross-country skiers, racing at home amidst friends and family in the club suit that started it all makes for a pretty close second.
While U.S. Ski Team (USST) members have to leave their club tights behind during World Cup competitions, they’re quick to don them again when they return to domestic racing in the U.S.
This holds especially true for Jessie Diggins, of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 Team and USST. Diggins raced to her second-straight SuperTour Finals win this week in the women’s 1.5-kilometer classic sprint on Tuesday in Craftsbury, Vt.
“It was fun skiing in those red, white and blue SMST2 suits again and especially awesome to have half the final with my club teammates!” Diggins wrote in an email. “The atmosphere here is definitely more relaxed than a World Cup, with less pressure, which makes it just a lot of fun. And spring series is supposed to be fun!”
After Diggins won the qualifier in a time of 3:30.60, she continued to dominate all three heats, ultimately winning the final in a slightly faster 3:30.27.
Her USST teammate, Ida Sargent, of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) finished second in the final, 0.73 seconds behind. On the phone after, Sargent said that being club-proud before a home-crowd fueled her.
“After all the World Cup racing it’s really fun to end the season here altogether, racing against club teammates and my U.S. Ski Team teammates and friends,” Sargent said. “ I live in Craftsbury, so … from the starters, to the timers, to the jury, I knew all of the [volunteers] …[including] my dad, who was one of the course control people out on course.”
Third-place finisher, Rosie Brennan — also on the USST — said that racing the sprint for her club Alaska Pacific University (APU) also provides a visual of how domestic teams create opportunities toward the World Cup.
“I’ve been on the other side of it, too, being on the SuperTour all year and doing really well and anxious to see how I do against the World Cup skiers,” Brennan said. “It’s important for us to come back and do these races because it … shows that path [towards other levels of racing] to everybody that’s here.”
This seems to be true, for athletes and coaches alike.
“[I]t’s always a blast to hop in with the fastest ladies in the country (and WORLD!!), just to know how FAST fast is,” Dartmouth Nordic assistant, Hilary McNamee, who qualified for the first quarterfinal, wrote in an email. “That quarterfinal with Jesse Diggins, Annie Hart and Caitlyn Patterson… whoa. They don’t mess around. I like to keep in touch with what it feels like to train and race– the soreness, the nerves, the feeling of accomplishment because it allows me to better relate to the athletes I work with. ”
The club team charm continued in the final, at least for SMST2, with three Stratton skiers advancing through the quarterfinals and semifinals into the final heat.
“[A]ny day the final has three SMS T2 suits in it is a good day,” Stratton’s Annie Hart, who finished fourth, wrote in an email.
The third SMST2 skier to toe the start line of the women’s final, alongside Diggins and Hart, was Sophie Caldwell, also of the USST.
While SMST2 comprised the first half of the final start list, Brennan and Sargent as well as Jennie Bender, of the Bridger Ski Foundation, made up the second half.
“In the final with so many talented ladies and World Cup winners, I just felt so excited,” Hart wrote. “Regardless of result, it is just such a great opportunity.”
Out of the start, Caldwell and Diggins set the pace into the first downhill, according to Sargent.
“Their skis were gliding faster I think and so I just kind of tucked in behind them,” she said.
While Sargent pinpointed the lead pace pushers as Caldwell and Diggins, Brennan attributed the first race attack as one from Diggins and Sargent.
“Jessie and Ida went off pretty hot on the start,” Brennan said. “I kind of made my move on the uphill to try and to get up to them.”
After double poling the qualifier on skate skis for the first time, Bender qualified in 14th, 20.6 seconds behind Diggins. She then won her quarterfinal and advanced as a lucky loser from the first semifinal, and found her body fighting to keep pace in the final with Brennan, Diggins and Sargent up the first major climb.
“I slipped a bit on the hill and just kind of ran out of gas,” Bender said on the phone. “I’ve never double poled a qualifier before, but I think it was a good experience … and I was happy to be in the final with this crew of girls. I just wanted to be more a bit more in that top five.”
As the top five rounded into the finishing stretch, Diggins emerged in first, but Sargent refused to let her out of her sight.
“Jessie and I were just drag racing up the climbs,” Sargent said. “And we were neck and neck in the last climb.”
However, in the final lunge to the line, Diggins took first by 0.73 seconds over Sargent.
“[Diggins] is just such a strong double poler,” Sargent said. “She poled just a little ahead on the last double pole to the finish, but I was psyched to be close to her.”
Finishing third, 2.85 seconds back, was Brennan.
“These were the first rounds of the year for me, basically actually since nationals last year.” explained Brennan, after spending the entire season on the World Cup. “I was definitely a little rusty … but it was fun to be able to ski the heats with [my World Cup teammates], especially Ida and Sophie and Jessie because they have been skiing heats all year. So to see how they do it, for sure, helps you learn how to ski different sections of the course better and, hopefully, not lose as much time.”
About 3 1/2 seconds off the podium, Hart took fourth (+6.36), a result she was “psyched” about.
“I think it was a testament and a good finale to all the hard work I’ve put into fitness and lasting through three very fast rounds,” Hart wrote. “The most important thing I’ve learned, and where I’ve improved my sprinting and distance, is skiing with the confidence that I can compete. With each heat I had more and more confidence, and I think that showed in my racing [today].”
Caldwell, who also celebrated her 26th birthday on Tuesday, finished the day in fifth (+8.85).
“Yesterday was a fun day of racing with friends,” Caldwell wrote in and email on Wednesday. “I was really proud to have three SMS T2 skiers in the final and to watch Jessie win once again. I’m feeling the effects of a long season and am pretty tired and not skiing as fast as I would like to be, but it’s a great atmosphere and fun to be in the same place as the rest of the skiing community.”
“Huge thanks to the outdoor and all the volunteers who have helped make this happen!” she added.
Rounding out the final was Bender in sixth (+13.14).
“Spring Series every year is always a bit more of a mental challenge,” Bender said. “But I’ve been enjoying the process.”
So have a number of others, including McNamee.
“In the last two years of working at Dartmouth and jumping into races, I’ve found that I actually race MUCH better than when I was an athlete,” McNamee wrote. “I think that is 100% mental. I’m no longer emotionally attached to my race results, which takes the pressure off entirely. Before, ski racing was so entangled with my self-worth, every bad result, every mediocre interval session was so corrosive to my self-confidence. Now, I don’t give a crap. I just appreciate the sport for all it’s ups and downs.”
McNamee raced to 22nd overall, after qualifying in 20th, 24.53 seconds back from Diggin’s first place qualifing time of 3:30.6.
“I come out of retirement about once a year, to throw down– mostly to preserve my street cred among the Dartmouth squad,” McNamee wrote in an email. “I’m very selective about the races…I try to time it for the end of the season when everyone else is tired and burnt out, so I look relatively good by comparison.”
Racing picks up again Thursday with the mixed team relay event, with four members per team (two male, two female) racing 2 x 5 k classic followed by 2 x 5 k freestyle.
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.