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For American ski fans, the Davos 10km on Sunday was one to be anticipated with a mix of expectation and nostalgia. Last season, in a year when the history books on U.S. skiing had to continuously be crossed-out and re-written, Davos was the first annotation – and it was done in bold, uncompromising ink. Rosie Brennan 1st, Hailey Swirbul 3rd, and Jessie Diggins in the top ten. That was in a field absent of the perennial powerhouses though. Most notably, without Therese Johaug (NOR), who at that point seemed unmatchable in distance racing, but also without the rest of the Norwegian or Swedish competitors who tend to populate World Cup top tens.
What about Sunday then? Well, time to return to the inkwell.
The tides that have been building in the early part of the season for the U.S. women definitively built into a wave on Sunday. There was the return of Jessie Diggins to the podium in a distance race, the continuation of Rosie Brennan’s world-class start to the season, Hailey Swirbul returning to the top ten, and the addition of two young Americans – Sophia Laukli (19th) and Novie McCabe (28th) – in the top 30. The Americans seemed to be making their mark everywhere on the 10km course Sunday. With starting places throughout the field, it was the American flags that dominated the graphics at the time-checks throughout the day, spanning the field in a way that mimicked their span in age and World Cup experience, but all added up to a remarkable team accomplishment.
It all started with Katharine Ogden, who started with bib 2, and whose smile to the camera at the start foreshadowed the day to come for her team. Then Caitlin Patterson headed out on course in bib 7, with Hailey Swirbul soon to follow in bib 24.
Swirbul was the first on the day to make an impact in the field. Through the 2.2k checkpoint, she was +3.2sec off leader Delphine Claudel (FRA) and in 3rd place. She would continue through the Davos course holding that margin, until a late push in the final two kilometers led her to overtaking Claudel and taking the race lead by +0.6sec – at which point she looked at the results and let out a surprised “yay!” before heading to the winner’s circle.
It was a great sequel to her 3rd place finish on the course last season, and one that reflected her comfort on the course, as she stated in an interview with FasterSkier:
“[This course] is almost exclusively V2, so almost constant work and not a lot of recovery, but also not a lot of steep hills that will blow out your lungs. I think being raised at altitude helped me learn how to pace that [course]. I’m almost more afraid to pace a race at sea level than altitude because it’s more muscular there. I think my strength is grinding V2- so I like it.”
Swirbul would then get to take in the exciting race unfolding from the later starters with the best seat in the house, and with Brennan and Diggins in the mix, she had something to cheer for too.
Of course, amid the rising tide of the Americans there was also a steadfast rock. Starting in bib 34 was Therese Johaug (NOR), who began the day on the tail of 13 consecutive podiums in the 10km Freestyle event (11 of those were wins). She started one minute ahead of Rosie Brennan, and one minute behind Frida Karlsson (SWE).
Karlsson would act as the leading edge for the top racers through the time checks all day, then. When she passed through the 2.2k mark, she had established a 5.4 second lead. Johaug then came through 7.4 seconds ahead of Karlsson, and Brennan would slot herself between the two in 2nd place – off Johaug by just 1 second.
It quickly established the pattern that was followed throughout the course. At 5km, Karlsson came in with a 5.7 second advantage over the field, Johaug then came through 13.7 seconds ahead of Karlsson, and Brennan 10.4 off Johaug, in second place, when she came through.
By 8k, Brennan had lost some ground to Karlsson, reversing the early trend of the race. Johaug had a 17.4 second advantage over 2nd placed Karlsson with Brennan coming through 18.4 seconds back, and therefore just one second behind Karlsson.
That was how the trio finished, with Johaug being the one that took over the winner’s chair from Swirbul, with Karlsson 17.1 seconds behind, and Brennan 24.3 seconds back.
That looked to be how things would finish, but while Brennan crossed the line, bib number 52, belonging to last year’s World Cup overall winner, made its way around the course.
The bib, of course, belonged to Jessie Diggins. She was the truest embodiment of the American wave today, starting off steady in the early part of the race – coming through the 2.2km checkpoint in 4th – before building, and building, and building to an exciting crash across the finish line. At 8k she was still in 3rd place, just off of Karlsson. By the finish line, she had overtaken the Swede, finishing 17.8 seconds off of Johaug, in 2nd place on the day.
Her remarkable move from 3rd to 2nd place in the last 2km was perhaps the best piece of racing on the day, and in an interview with FasterSkier she reflected that it was possible due to her confidence on the terrain:
“I got a lot of questions on the last 2km today. And I’m going to be honest, I’m not exactly sure how I did that – I was just focused on going all out…but I do think those working downhills have always been a strength of mine…and so I just had a lot of fun out there.”
Here’s the full audio from Jessie Diggins’ post-race comments, including her skis, the race, and managing altitude.
It was the highest placing for the Americans on the day, but wasn’t their last statement. As attention turned back to the course, it found Sophia Laukli and Novie McCabe both racing to the best finishes of their nascent World Cup careers. Laukli skied from the back of the field in bib 65 to finish 19th (+57.7), with McCabe in 28th (+1:17.4). Through it all, Swirbul, who had started early and waited patiently as her chasers took swings at her times, finished the day in 6th place (+27.7).
Here’s a post-race interview with Swirbul.
We leave Davos then, with the familiar pages of the World Cup continuing to be filled. Therese Johaug looks to be the best distance skier on the planet, but Frida Karlsson is a real challenger to that dominance, and Jessie Diggins is still a maverick animated by speed and heart. If you want a story though, you can’t beat the complexity, excitement, and tenacity of the one that the whole of the U.S. women’s team is penning this season so far.
The strong results continued elsewhere for the Americans, with Katharine Ogden finishing 43rd (+1:48.5), Caitlin Patterson in 46th (+1:55.9), and Hannah Halvorsen in 78th (+3:53.3). The Canadian women also looked to build off their results in Lillehammer and Ruka, with Cendrine Browne finishing in 36th (+1:44.3), Dahria Beatty in 42nd (+1:48.3), and Katherine Stewart-Jones in 48th (+1:58.5).
In comments sent to multiple news organizations Brennan reflected on an exciting, but fatigued, 4th place performance:
“Wow, another bittersweet day for me today. Placing 4th is absolutely nothing to complain about, however, I felt I didn’t quite have my best in me today. I definitely have some fatigue from yesterday and from really all of period 1 so I didn’t feel like I had the legs, mind, and body that I wanted and know I can have. That said, I am really proud to have put myself out there, get myself in the game and fight with all I did have. It was a great day for the women’s team and I am really happy to see some outstanding performances from the team. Period 1 is tough and it says a lot when people can rebound 3 weeks in. I still feel I’m on track with my plan and am excited for some rest and a good training camp.”
Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing, politics, and skiing (not necessarily all related) while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.