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In case you missed it, yesterday’s 10-kilometer skate in Falun, Sweden was a standout day for the Americans, highlighted by a gutsy victory by Jessie Diggins. How deep into the well Diggins explored was evident in her writhing and occasionally dry heaving body at the finish as she regained enough oxygen and composure to stagger to the leader chair. She upset the prolific Norwegian distance champion Therese Johaug, whose 66 World Cup distance victories both garner immense respect and some frustrated “She won again…” comments from non-Norwegian followers.
But the story does not end there. Rosie Brennan skied to 8th and Sadie Maubet Bjornsen landed in 10th in her first World Cup race of the season. Three in the top 10 in a full field hungry to to prove their mettle before World Championship selections are solidified. Not a bad day in the office.
In today’s 10 k mass start classic, the excitement builds a little differently. Versus a drawn out rise in excitement as the splits of the seeded group fly by the various checkpoints, today was head-to-head, with all eyes on what Johaug’s rebuttal would be and how the American’s (and Swedes and Russians and the remaining Norwegians, for that matter) would respond.
Mass start and classic technique, in which Johaug excels. Conversely, Diggins’ has struggled to achieve the same results in classic as skate, though she has displayed marked progress this season.
In a pre-race interview, FIS phrased the question to Diggins as this. “What are you in for today?”
“Oh boy! [It’s] a very different race!” she laughed. “I’m very excited to give it my all. All you can give on race day is your own effort. I’m looking forward to crossing that finish line knowing I gave it everything I had. For me, if I can do that, then it was a good day.”
Awaiting the gun to send them off, the athletes quietly slid back and forth in the squeaky frozen tracks, keeping nerves at bay and blood flowing in the single digit Fahrenheit temps. Skiers familiar with an outing in such conditions understand the sounds that go along with these conditions. The cacophonous start sounded like a lightsaber battle.
It was clear early that Johaug and her teammate Heidi Weng wanted to push the pace. They attempted to pull away from the group in the opening kilometers creating a small gap. But in the first downhill back toward the stadium, Diggins gave them something to worry about. Her skis like rockets, she overtook them in the descent, slingshotting around the curve and into the lead as they lapped through the stadium.
In fact, no one could break away. Not even the breakaway specialist Johaug. At the 5 k mark, the top-10 skiers were separated by less than two seconds, with Diggins sitting fifth, smack in the middle.
After a sprint bonus point opportunity at 5.8 k, which was narrowly snagged by Johaug over Sweden’s Ebba Andersson, the pace began to accelerate. At roughly the 6.5-kilometer mark, Johaug began her surge, creating a new gap of a couple seconds by the subsequent top of the climb. But the slinky phenomenon repeated itself, as Andersson, Linn Svahn, Katharina Hennig, and Weng closed the gap on the descent to the stadium. Diggins fought hard to maintain contact, tucked in behind Sweden’s Frida Karlsson just behind the leaders with a train of chasers close on their tails.
With 1 k of downhill and fast terrain to go, this pack was still tight, Svahn and Hennig pushing from the front. An ill-timed crash on a downhill curve took Anderson, who had been in 4th, out of contention, but one could not look away as five remaining women flew toward the finish.
Hammering the uphills, Johaug crested the final sustained climb in the lead, tucking as she pushed into the final sweeping downhill. Svahn stayed tight in the corner, hugging the v-board and capitalizing on her fast skis to sneak by Johaug on the inside. The Swede held herself less than a ski-length ahead of Johaug over the final rollers and into the finish lanes. At that point, it was all over; Johaug was no match for the sprint star’s closing speed.
Poles whipping in double pole fury, Svahn held her ground at the front to stop the clock at 25:57.1. Meanwhile, Russia’s Yulia Stupak sprinted past Johaug in the final meters to take second (+0.4), while Hennig forced the final podium position to be decided by photo. It was determined that Johaug held onto third (+0.9).
“I was really looking forward to competing because I’ve been home since the Tour de Ski and I felt pretty strong the last week,” Svahn told FIS after the race. “I just tried to keep my focus on the course and do everything right. When they couldn’t get a gap on the last uphill, the hardest uphill, I thought, ‘Well, now it’s my turn to try to do my best to the finish line.’
“I felt strong and had really amazing skis,” Svahn continued. “It was a victory for the whole team, especially the waxers, because my skis were unbelievable.”
Yana Kirpechenko (RUS) finished at the back of the tight lead group in 5th (1.9), with Norway’s Helene Fosseholm bringing in the chase pack in 6th (+7.7), Diggins 7th (+8.3), and Weng 8th (+8.8).
“Today was awesome,” wrote Diggins in an email. “We had really competitive skis, and I actually have been loving how cold it is because when it’s cold like this I feel like I can just keep pushing and pushing my body! This course had a lot of power striding, and I was just focused so hard on keeping my technique as together as I could with a flooding body. I was sending it as hard as I could the entire race, and I’m very proud of that effort. And fun to be so close to the front in a classic race!”
Sadie Maubet Bjornsen was next up for the Americans, finishing in a pack of chasers in 15th (+35.7).
“Another exciting day of racing in Falun here,” Maubet Bjornsen emailed. It is the first time in a while that I have started a ways back in a mass start, and boy, it is a different type of racing! Huge respect for all those who put together amazing races from that position! I kind of felt like I was burning matches more than I would have loved just trying to weave my way through.
Outside the top-30, Rosie Brennan took 33rd (+1:15.6), followed by Katharine Ogden in 42nd (+1:49.1), Sophia Laukli 50th (+2:37.1), Caitlin Patterson in 51st (+2:41.2), and Alayna Sonnesyn in 56th (+3:33.2).
Post-Race Comments from U.S. Head Coach Matt Whitcomb.
Leading the Canadian women with her second individual top-30 in two World Cup stops was Katharine Stewart-Jones in 17th (+36.2), her career best individual result at this level. Despite a string of wins and podiums last season, both domestically and in Opa Cup events, and a top-30 finish in the 2020 Scandinavian World Cup Ski Tour, a seemingly break-through season, Stewart-Jones was not named to the Canadian national team for 2020/2021. Another top-20 result will automatically qualify her to make the team next season.
“It was a super fun race,” Stewart-Jones wrote after the race. “The pace went out hot but I knew it was the type of course where gaps are hard to make but also hard to close so my goal was to get myself into a good position in the first lap and hold on. The techs did an awesome job with my skis which helped me relax both on the downhills and climbs.
Cendrine Browne rounded out the Canadian finishers in 38th (+1:45.1). The race saw 60 finishers.
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646