FasterSkier would like to thank Fischer Sport USA, Madshus USA, Concept2, Boulder Nordic Sport, and Swix Sport US for their generous support, which made this coverage possible.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea —Be honest. Who chose Norway’s Ragnhild Haga as Thursday’s gold medal favorite?
In pre-race hearsay, the 26 year old seemed an outside shot for the win. On the Olympic stage, other names openly circulated the 10-kilometer freestyle race. Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla was one.
The 30-year-old Swede had already proven her form — and Olympic intent — by opening the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games with a skiathlon win. Even with that hardware tucked away, Kalla was by no means overzealous to have her sights set on another distance gold medal. She’s well known on the World Cup for her 10 k podium performances. Two Olympic cycles ago, she collected gold in the Vancouver 10 k skate race.
If not Kalla, then the Norwegian name ‘Marit Bjørgen’ was certainly heard. Haga’s teammate, Bjørgen, has been first or second in all but five World Cup 10 k skate races she’s entered over the past decade. At the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympiad, the Norwegian finished two places behind Kalla to take the 10 k freestyle bronze.
After Kalla and Bjørgen, another name to consider was Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg. At one time perhaps considered a sprint specialist, Østberg is more a cross-country all-arounder. She has three 10 k freestyle World Cup wis, one from 2016 and two from this season.
Add to the medley Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski, who, with numerous second and third place 10 k World Cup podiums, was plenty hungry to take a freestyle win (she earned her first 10 k classic victory earlier this year in Planica, Slovenia). Another name tossed around in the stands and over the loudspeaker was Jessie Diggins of the U.S.A.
Prior to PyeongChang, Diggins made it palpably clear twice, if not more, that striving for a medal is a goal of hers at these Winter Games. Her gutsy win the Seefeld 10 k freestyle mass start — the final World Cup event before the 2018 Olympics — was the first performance nod to the direction she hoped to head in South Korea.
Her second sign off came in a Jan. 29 blog post titled “Brave Enough”.
In that post, Diggins makes it clear that it is not necessarily whether the suitcase she packs at the end of the games includes a gold, silver, or bronze disc strung with blue-ribbon. It is the idea that as she watches the smoke clear from the closing ceremony’s firework display and stands to depart the 2018 Olympic venue, she leaves knowing that she went after that prize the best that she could.
“I want to know that I was brave enough to want it,” she writes, of achieving the first women’s cross-country Olympic medal.
In the line just before, she writes, “I know it’s not impossible, after all.”
A 2015 World Championships silver medalist in the 10 k freestyle and known for her ability to grind through grueling uphills in skating events to the top of the field, it would be imprudent to say that Diggins was not a medal contender. By the start of Thursday’s 10 k, the 26-year-old Afton, Minnesota, native had securely nailed a spot in the polls. No one was pulling your ear.
Not necessarily in the predictions was Haga — until the Norwegian’s stats were pulled up on paper. In 10 k freestyle events, Haga has had seven top-five World Cup performances. Three of those were podiums (second or third place) that came in the past two months.
Still, while Haga has been racing the World Cup since 2010, none of those eight years produced an outright win. The Norwegian’s best performance to date was in this year’s Ruka 10 k pursuit, where she finished with the top time of day. The PyeongChang Games mark Haga’s Olympic debut and Thursday’s 10 k skate is her second only Olympic race. Last Sturday she crossed 15th in the skiathlon, which she personally described as “just a bad day.”
“It is easy to get a little bit uncertain about my shape and skis and everything,” Haga said during a press conference after Thursday’s 10 k. “We didn’t know exactly what happened, but I just tried to put it behind me.”
Redemption came knocking. Haga covered Thursday’s 10 k course in a time of 25:00.5, which put her in the leaders chair, and later, the top of the podium with gold.
Haga didn’t start the day as number 1, but in bib 50, exactly two minutes ahead of Kalla.
At first, Kalla had the fastest splits, besting Bjørgen, who had started earlier in bib 32, by almost five seconds and Pärmäkoski (bib 48) by six seconds at the 1.4 k checkpoint. At the 5 k mark, Kalla had doubled her lead on both the Finn and the Norwegian.
“I tried to ski very offensive from the first lap,” Kalla said at the press conference. “I knew that it will be very tough today. When you are on the bottom of the long downhill you will work very hard until you are there the next time. It was hard to keep up a good technique today, because I became very tired. It was hard to get recovery.”
Østberg in bib 58 was skiing in third by the halfway point. Diggins, who started in bib 56, had moved from seventh to fifth by 5 k, 13.5 seconds away from the win and 4.5 seconds away from third.
Backtracking to the first 1.4 k, Haga had the fourth-fastest time, before moving into second behind Kalla at the halfway mark.
In another kilometer, everything shuffled. Kalla’s pace dropped in rank and she moved back into second. Haga’s pace came out 1.7 seconds faster than the Swede’s to take the lead. Diggins was now in third, skiing 17.9 seconds out from the win and 0.7 seconds ahead of Bjørgen in fourth. At 6.2 k, Pärmäkoski lingered in fifth, 2.6 seconds away from Diggins.
All five skiers held their positions over the next 2.2 k.
“I wanted to start first in the group because, I thought that maybe after the first lap I could go out with Ingvild Flugstad Østberg or Heidi Weng,” Bjørgen explained at the press conference.
While she waited in the finishing pen, Diggins, Kalla, Haga and Pärmäkoski were still on course.
“I heard after 5 k that I was close up to the medals,” Bjørgen continued. “The problem for me was that I was losing in the middle of the race, like I have done this winter.”
With less than two kilometers left in the race, Haga buried her competition. With legs that looked fresh, the Norwegian headed up the final climb and finished 31.9 seconds faster than Bjørgen.
“I think I had a better start than usual,” Haga said at the press conference. “I felt very good and got good messages from the coaches, that I was only a few seconds behind. On the last lap I was very afraid that some of the others were going to speed up. So I increased my speed and got some more seconds. I just focused on staying on my feet on the last downhill and to give it all to the finish line.”
Back out on course, the American was visibly working every turn, every hill, to her max.
“Of course you want a medal, you always want a medal, that’s why we are here, that’s like the point of the Olympics,” Diggins told FasterSkier after the 10 k. “But there are other things that are also really important besides the actual hardware. I think it’s important to not put other people’s expectations on me. To be that close and to be skiing with the best in the world. I have looked up to Marit my entire life.”
To take a quick tick back in history, Diggins was born eight years before Bjørgen’s World Cup debut in 1999. The American came onto the World Cup circuit in 2011. When Bjørgen competed in her first Olympics at the Salt Lake City 2002 winter games, Diggins was 11 years old.
Bjørgen would go on to compete at four more Winter Games and take home six Olympic gold medals before tallying her 12th Olympic medal on Thursday. The 37-year-old Norwegian is a nordic-powerhouse presence, one that Diggins, and many others, idolized growing up. The only difference is now Diggins finds herself vying for the same Olympic step.
All three races in PyeongChang have found Diggins in the top six. Her skiathlon fifth place set the new best mark for the U.S. women’s team’s Olympic results.
On Thursday, she tied that result, placing fifth (+35.2) in the 10 k. This time around, she was 3.3 seconds away from third (shared by Bjørgen and Pärmäkoski) and 3.3 seconds away from the bronze medal.
“I could not have gone any harder,” Diggins reflected. “I can honestly look back and say, I don’t know where I would have found those seconds. I pushed my body way past its limit, I killed myself out there, and I thought I was gonna pass out on that last climb. I was completely locked up. That’s a really good feeling to know you gave it everything that you had and more than you thought you could give. I’m really proud of today.”
Diggins was bumped into fifth due to a tie finish between Bjørgen and Pärmäkoski. The Finn and the Norwegian were each awarded an Olympic bronze medal.
“I think that it’s better that both of us stand on the place today,” Pärmäkoski said at the press conference. “Of course Marit is one of my idols when I was younger. It’s really nice to stand on the same podium today.”
The Olympic medal is the 27-year-old Pärmäkoski’s third, after she placed third in the skiathlon last Saturday and second in the relay at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. .
“I am really happy for a bronze today,” Bjørgen said at the press conference. “I can still sit there and think about that I could do something better there, but I have no chance to do it again, so I’m really happy to sit there and share it with Krista.”
In second with silver and her second medal of the 2018 Games was Kalla.
“It was for sure a different feeling from the mass start. In the mass start you know exactly what position you have. Today you have to work hard all the time,” Kalla said. “I fight the hardest that I could, and I’m satisfied with my performance.”
Haga retained the top time through them all, earning her first Olympic medal at her first Olympics in the color of gold.
“It was just a perfect day,” Haga said, adding with a laugh, “My uncle was in the Olympics and I think he finished eighth once. I wanted to beat his result.” Her uncle, Anders Bakken, raced in the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, according to her Olympic bio. “So now maybe I’m best in the family, too.”
Three Americans in Top 20
Following Diggin’s fifth place, her fellow U.S. Ski Team members Sadie Bjornsen placed 15th (+1:42.1) and Kikkan Randall finished 16th (+1:49.9).
“I decided I was not gooing to pace, just go on sending mode and see what I could do, see if I could hold it,” Bjornsen told FasterSkier. “I guess I wasn’t able to hold it as much as I would have liked, but I still am really happy. I think that’s my best Olympics result yet, and I think there is more yet to come, some awesome races still around the corner.”
Bjornsen actually finished one place better in Tuesday’s classic sprint, where she was 14th overall.
The third-best American on Thursday, Randall may have earned her spot in the U.S. women’s relay on Saturday.
“I was looking at pictures of Breck on the way up [to the race venue] and just knowing that if I skied happy and skied my own race I would perform well and I think it worked,” she told FasterSkier after Thursday’s 10 k. “I know my skate shape has been good all year, so just was happy to be able to lay it down after kind of a frustrating end to the skiathlon. The team events are the ones I look forward to the most over the last four years and would love to be in a position to go for it.”
Liz Stephen was the fourth American finisher on Thursday, finishing in 30th (+2:35.4).
“I think you did something wrong if you get to this point and your not smiling at least. I mean it’s the Olympics,” Stephen said to FasterSkier while smiling in the mixed zone. “I definitely didn’t have the best race I was hoping for, but I mean, our team has so much good to focus on, and that’s what I plan on doing.”
PyeongChang marks Stephen’s third Olympics. For a moment after the race, the 31 year old reflected on the fact that it is most likely her last.
“It is a little emotional for sure,” Stephen said of the significance of the moment. “I definitely had thoughts out there like, ‘Hey, this could be your last race, this could be your last ever Olympic race, don’t leave anything out there,’ so that’s motivational in a good way. It wasn’t ever a negative, like, ‘Oh, this is going to be my last race. I don’t want to end this way.’ It was like, ‘This is maybe my last race, let’s go get it.’ So we will see, maybe I will get another one, but if I didn’t, goddamn, this has been fun.”
Competing for Canada, Emily Nishikawa (+2:41.) led the way in 32nd. Dahria Beatty (+2:48.4) was 37th, Cendrine Brown (+3:11.9) 43rd, and Anne-Marie Comeau (+4:10.8) 62nd.
“I had all these little process goals just to ski each section of the course the best I could,” Nishikawa told FasterSkier. “I think I really did that. I just focused on technical aspects and just little things like pushing over the tops and working the corners well, and I think I did a really good job of that so I am really, really happy with my race today.”
For more quotes and photos from Thursday’s 10 k, click here.
Women return to the race venue for the 4 x 5-kilometer relay Saturday.
— Jason Albert, Ian Tovell, Chelsea Little, Harald Zimmer, and Alex Kochon contributed
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.