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By: Ben Theyerl
For ski fans whose parents were smart enough to record the 1994 Winter Olympics on VHS tapes, Lillehammer will forever be a World Cup venue carrying the shadow of thousands of fans waving Norwegian flags as Bjørn Dæhlie did his signature “spin move“ on the way to Olympic glory.
Fast-forward to 2021, where the course has been reworked and modernized, the lycra is decidedly less exciting, and the multitude of Norwegian flags flying were interjected by a whole lot of Swedish and American ones.
Today, in the Birkiebeiner stadium – that quintessential home of Norwegian skiing – chances of victory blowing in from Sweden were very high. Going in, they had won the last 5 straight World Cup freestyle sprints, and 14 of the last 20 overall. The Americans too, looked to continue their history of success in the freestyle sprint. Of the 16 wins that the Americans have had in sprint events, 15 of them have come in freestyle, with two of those previous winners, Jessie Diggins and Rosie Brennan, in the field on Friday morning.
In qualifying there were hints that as the field narrowed, it would be Sweden, Norway, and the United States whose skiers would fill the semifinal and final slots. Maja Dahlqvist continued her strong start to the season, winning the qualifier in a time of 3:11.59. She was joined by Tiril Udnes Weng (+1.38) and Nadine Faehndrich (+2.84) in the top 3 spots.
The U.S. team placed three inside the Top 10, with Julia Kern the top qualifier in seventh (+4.90), followed by Jessie Diggins in eighth (+5.08), and Rosie Brennan in tenth (+5.49). Hannah Halvorsen rounded out the qualifiers for the heats in 21st (+8.18).
Three strong national contingents then went to the quarterfinals. Norway with seven skiers, Sweden with five, and the United States with four. There they would face each other on a new 1.6k Sprint course that left little to be deciphered about what would be the deciding feature on the day. On this course, there was an A-climb, and after doing it once, they would loop back around and do it again.
The Americans took a different approach to heat selection this week than they did in Ruka, where they raced late in the quarterfinal heats. Kern and Diggins lined up in the first heat together, joined by Tiril Udnes Weng. Kern led out the pack and raced consistently throughout, leading the first time up the climb with her teammate Diggins in tow.
For Diggins, the quarterfinal established the pattern that she would look to repeat throughout the day on the tough course. At the foot of the climb in the second loop, Diggins moved through to the outside of the pack and then powered to the front. By the time she was in the stadium, only Weng was left behind her, and that’s how they finished. Kern, meanwhile, sprinted to 3rd place, and after all the quarterfinals were settled, was just a tenth of a second out of a lucky loser slot for the semi-finals (which went to the Finnish skier Jasmi Joensuu). Kern ended her day in 13th overall.
The other lucky loser slot was filled by Rosie Brennan in the second quarter-final. Brennan’s tactical approach to the course mirrored Diggins. In the second heat, Brennan matched up against Maiken Caspersen Falla and Nadine Faehndrich, and would finish just off the two to take third place in the heat, and first in the lucky loser slots.
In the semifinal, Diggins found herself alongside three Norwegians, matching up against T.U. Weng, L.U. Weng, and Caspersen Falla. The heat saw the best execution of her tactical approach to the course all day, as she followed the first move up the climb from Jasmi Joensuu, then shot around the outside to carry speed into the downhill, before moving in a perfect swoop off the apex of the turn to the outside that allowed her to power up the final climb joined by T.U. Weng and Falla. At the finish, Diggins crossed in first again, with T.U. Weng right behind.
The two would be joined by four skiers from the other semi-final. The Swedish pair of Dahlqvist and Ribom executed their tactical approach to the course to a tee, leading out the first part of the course and establishing a sprint that would be devoid of any posturing, then staying with any moves that occurred on the second-time through the climb – which came in this heat from Brennan – before finishing strong in the stadium sprint. Dahlqvist finished first, Ribom second, and Brennan came out the lucky loser for the second time on the day, advancing to the finals.
The final field represented the Swedish and American fronts, who fully established themselves as the dominant force in Lillehammer. Two Swedes, two Americans, and just one Norwegian. Plus, Anamarija Lampic of Slovenia too.
The two leading countries’ different approaches to the course were most stark the first time up the climb, where Diggins and Brennan took the outside, and Ribom led the rest of the field on the inside track. At the top of that first ascent, the Americans took the animating action, Diggins shooting around the outside to lead the descent.
Brennan followed, reflecting her initiative to create an ideal position for the final climb: “I made a move early in the final to try to see what I had and unfortunately, was passed on the downhill into the last uphill” she said in an email to multiple news outlets.
With Brennan back in the pack as they took to the second climb, what had been alluded to throughout the day gained clairvoyance – Dahlqvist and Diggins were the strongest in the field. As they crossed the finish line, what was clear became a result. Dahlqvist won her second sprint of the young World Cup season, as Diggins earned her first podium finish of the year. T.U. Weng rounded out the podium in 3rd, with Ribom finishing 4th and Brennan in 5th on the day.
If Ruka was an exciting first burst of energy for the World Cup season, then Lillehammer today was an indication that long-term trends do hold. Last year’s World Cup champion Jessie Diggins has her first podium of the season. Maja Dahlqvist is now on a three-win sprint streak going back to last season, and the most ascendant sprinter on the women’s circuit. And in the freestyle sprint, it’s the Swedish and American women who continue to rise to the top, with Norway, on their home turf, putting up an ever-valiant defense of their dominance on the world stage.
Oh, and Americans can start dreaming of Jessie Diggins doing her best Bjørn Dæhlie impression in Beijing come February, as her second-place finish today means one-half of the Gold Medal highlight from the last Winter Olympics in 2018 is officially qualified. Diggins is the second American to qualify for this season’s Olympic team, joining Brennan (top-8 in both today’s sprint and last weekend’s 10 k classic) as objective qualifiers.
Here’s Jessie’s post-race comments to FasterSkier:
Stepping back into the quarterfinals, Hannah Halvorsen skied strong in the fourth heat of the quarterfinals, which included Dahlqvist and Lampic. Losing contact toward the finish, Halvorsen finished sixth in her heat, which put her in 28th place in the final standings.
“I felt good today on the course,” Halvorsen wrote in a post-race email. “It was fun to have things come together. It was awesome to see our team put so many people in the top 30 this early in the season! I can’t wait to see what the season will bring for the US with so much potential in the mix!”
Elsewhere in the results, North American women had a strong showing. Hailey Swirbul (USA) finished 42nd (+12.50), with Cendrine Browne (Canada) in 52nd (+14.63), Dahria Beatty (Canada) in 53rd (+14.73), and Katherine Stewart-Jones (Canada) in 55th (+15.34). Novie McCabe (USA) finished 56th (+15.34), Maya MacIsaac-Jones (Canada) finished 60th (+19.21), Katharine Ogden (USA) finished 61st (+19.89), and Sydney Palmer-Leger (USA) finished 62nd (+19.89).
In a post-race interview, U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Matt Whitcomb answered a variety of questions on the men’s and women’s races in Lillehammer, including comments on the new course and the approach to heat selection this weekend relative to Ruka. He also shared his perspectives on the rounds, and an explanation of why qualification is a skill that athletes must learn, in reference to comments made by Sadie Maubet Bjornsen and Devon Kershaw on the post-Ruka episode of The Devon Kershaw Show. Have a listen.