ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA — American cross-country ski coaches face a high-stakes dilemma over the next 24 hours as they choose which members of their deep, talented women’s team will race Saturday’s four-person relay at the Beijing Olympics.
The U.S. women have a fair shot at a medal in the event, in which each woman skis a five-kilometer leg. But don’t envy the American coaches, who are still pondering which of six athletes will fill the last two spots on the team alongside stars Jessie Diggins of Vermont and Rosie Brennan of Anchorage.
“We try to instill belief all year long, so that we can roll through some of these punches and athletes have that level of confidence that allows them to flow through some of these setbacks, potentially, of maybe not being selected for a team,” said U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Matt Whitcomb. “But straight up, it’s impossibly hard.”
In an interview next to the cross-country venue’s empty stadium late Thursday, all Whitcomb could say for sure about the team is that Brennan and Diggins will be on it.
Entries are due by late Friday afternoon Beijing time.
“I will say with 100% honesty, we haven’t decided yet,” Whitcomb said. “We have a team of eight women who are incredible racers, and we’ve considered every name, in multiple legs. And we are currently in the process of talking with these athletes about how they’re feeling.”
The relay is a preoccupation not just for the coaches but also for the athletes on the bubble.
But both Novie McCabe and Hailey Swirbul, the two Americans who raced in Thursday’s individual start Olympic event in addition to Diggins and Brennan, said there’s nothing personal about it.
“It’s for sure a goal of everyone’s,” said McCabe, who finished 24th in her Olympic debut. “There are definitely a lot of girls with a chance to be on it. But I think we all believe in each other a lot.”
The coaches will likely be informed by the results from Thursday’s race, in which Swirbul placed 32nd, along with the two previous women’s events at the Games.
Two other U.S. women who haven’t yet competed in Beijing, Sophia Laukli and Caitlin Patterson, also skied a race effort on Thursday’s course before the Olympic event. But Whitcomb said it wasn’t intended as a test for the relay.
“Am I curious with how they felt? Yes, definitely. But…I don’t have the times, and they deliberately didn’t want to be compared, and we didn’t want them compared. This is a workout, so they can get faster,” he said. “We’ve talked about running time trials before, and we just don’t feel like it aligns with our team culture.”
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.