This World Cup coverage is made possible through the generous support of Marty and Kathy Hall and the A Hall Mark of Excellence Award. To learn more about A Hall Mark of Excellence Award or to learn how you can support FasterSkier’s coverage please contact email@example.com.
Sunday morning, battling through ripping winds, the women delivered an impressive and dramatic final cross-country event to close out the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. For the first time, skiing further than the men (gender parity coming more quickly than anyone could have guessed) thanks to the men’s kilometer event getting shortened to 28.4 k due to harsh conditions. Though the thermometer did not read particularly low in the Zhangjiakou stadium, roaring winds made racing both considerably colder and considerably more difficult as the women completed four laps of the 7.5 k course, the race happening three hours earlier than originally planned due to the weather.
First the highlights, Therese Johaug of Norway secured her third individual gold medal of the Games in dominant fashion, +1:43.3 clear of second place. In a truly gutsy performance, Jessie Diggins earned US women’s cross-country its second individual women’s medal, securing silver, and all four American women finished in the top twenty.
But how did we get there? Within five minutes of starting, Johaug was at the front, pushing the pace. Any thoughts that she might have preferred to stick with pack skiing given the windy conditions were quickly banished. After just 2.9 k, she had successfully broken up the field and pulled away, bringing six athletes with her. Moments later the front group was down to four as Johaug charged ahead, with Diggins, Ebba Andersson of Sweden, and Delphine Claudel of France sticking with her. A chase pack formed, initially composed of Rosie Brennan of the USA, along with Krista Pärmäkoski and Kerttu Niskanen of Finland, the bronze and silver medalists from the 15 k classic.
The rest of the first lap saw lots of lead changes among the front four as no one was eager to take on the wind at the front. In each of the more sheltered sections we saw Johaug applying pressure, but the three athletes with her responded to the moves and stayed with her. Behind them, Brennan was working hard to close the gap but not finding luck gaining any ground.
With one lap complete, we saw the first withdrawal from the race as skiathlon silver medalist, Natalia Nepryaeva, representing the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), stopped her race. Petra Novakova of the Czech Republic also pulled out later on.
Up at the front, as the athletes took on the first major climb out of the stadium, Claudel (FRA) started to fade. By the top of the hill, she had lost contact and was off the back on her own. Behind her, the chase pack had strengthened in numbers to ten, led by Brennan (USA) and trailed by her teammate, Sophia Laukli (USA) making her first Olympic appearance.
As Johaug (NOR), Diggins (USA) and Andersson (SWE) crested the initial climbing section and entered a feed zone, Johaug seized an opportunity. Diggins and Andersson swung wide to grab bottles and Johaug rocketed away. Though Diggins worked to chase her down, the move was set and Johaug had taken up her favorite race position- out front on her own.
With 10.4 k of racing complete, the first four athletes were spaced out evenly with 16 seconds between each of them. Johaug led, +16 ahead of Diggins, who was trailed by Andersson (+32.8), followed by Claudel (+49).
Behind them, Brennan was having difficulty getting her two Finnish shadows to take on any of the lead work as she battled the wind, still trying to close.
With two laps of racing complete, the time gap continued to grow in Johaug’s favor. The chasers were quickly reeling in Claudel (FRA) and looked to be nearing Andersson (SWE) as well, just +14 seconds behind her. On the A-climb out of the stadium, Claudel was absorbed by the group and the margin to Andersson was down to just ten seconds. Perhaps sensing this, the Swede redoubled her effort and at 17.9 k had widened the margin to +31 seconds.
The front two, each entirely by herself, continued fighting hard, Johaug’s advantage to Diggins and the rest of the field growing steadily. At 21.2 k Johaug was +1:08 ahead of Diggins and +2:07.1 ahead of Andersson. As such, the top three entered and exited the stadium in turn, each one leaving as the next entered, now with one lap to go.
Andersson (SWE) appeared to be well clear of the chasers, +36.1 seconds ahead at 22.5 k. Around this time, Pärmäkoski (FIN) broke a pole and dropped from the chase pack, which was now composed of Brennan (USA), Claudel (FRA), Niskanen (FIN), Jonna Sundling (SWE), Tatiana Sorina (ROC), Teresa Stadlober (AUT) and Mariya Istomina (ROC).
Through 25.4 k, Johaug had a lead of +1:39.8 to Diggins. Andersson was +2:40.2 behind and still 36 seconds up on the chasing group, as the camera caught Johaug lapping a skier, a full 7.5 k ahead.
Heading into the final grinding climb the chasers seemed to have sensed an opportunity. Spindrift almost fully obscured Niskanen and Brennan, being blasted by the wind as they closed in on Andersson, +14 seconds behind at 28.7 k.
Over two minutes ahead of them, Johaug entered the stadium and was handed a Norwegian flag to manage in the wind as she headed into the finish. 1:24.54 of racing and she had earned her third gold medal of the games, having won every distance race.
“I am so proud and I am so happy,” said Johaug, “It is a dream come true that I can stand here for Norway with three gold medals in the same Olympics. I was so, so happy 14 days ago when I got my first [gold medal] and I cannot believe I should have more. It’s fantastic to end my Olympic career with these three gold medals.”
Johaug, who is 33 years old, announced before the 30 k that this would be her last Olympic appearance.
With Johaug winning by the second-largest margin of victory in this event, +1:43.3 later came Diggins, V1’ing across the finish line and collapsing, having spent everything out on the course.
“It’s really emotional,” said Diggins after the race, “That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my whole life, especially because I had food poisoning 30 hours ago, which is why I thought I was going to die at the finish line… My legs were cramping the whole last 17 k, I don’t know how I made it to the finish. It was amazing.”
Diggins now holds three Olympic medals, gold from the team sprint in 2018, silver from today’s effort, and bronze from the skate sprint two weeks ago. With this silver medal Diggins also becomes the first non-European woman to land on the podium in the women’s 30 k event.
Speaking to the food poisoning issue Diggins said, “I woke up yesterday morning and pretty much everything was coming right out of me, so I basically laid in bed all day and made myself eat food. Luckily it wasn’t so bad, but I was feeling pretty bad 24 hours ago. I talked to my parents and my mom said, ‘Don’t decide how you feel right now, just go out there and ski because you love to race.’ And she was right.”
Johannes Høsflot Klæbo withdrew from the men’s race yesterday, also citing food issues.
“We had amazing skis,” concluded Diggins, “Our team worked so hard. I just tried to ski smart and then I wanted to ski a gutsy race, so when Therese [Johaug] went, I tried to go with her and I couldn’t stay. So then I thought I would just put my head down and ski my own race.”
“That might have been the best race of my entire life, I’m not going to lie. It was also maybe the hardest race of my whole life. It’s been an emotional roller-coaster, but I am so happy we made it to the end. To have a medal in the sprint and the 30 k are the ultimate bookends for me. I have been trying to be a good all-around athlete my whole life, so this has been really cool.”
With the first two medals decided, the race for bronze was turning into a nail-biter. Having held off the pack and skied by herself for nearly 20 k, Andersson (SWE) was quickly being overtaken. Niskanen was closing fast and bringing the rest of the chase group with her.
As the skiers headed into the final little climb into the stadium, Niskanen blazed past Andersson. Suddenly, what had seemed like a sure bet for bronze had turned to an 8th place for the Swede as Sundling (SWE), Sorina (ROC), Brennan (USA) and Claudel (FRA) all finished in front of her.
Niskanen (FIN) earned her second medal of the Games, after finishing just +0.4 behind Johaug in the 10 k classic, with bronze in the 30 k, this time with a much larger margin of +2:33.3. “The last 1500 meters in a 30 k is important,” said Niskanen in the press conference afterwards, “everyone is tired and I only did push hard and believe in my medal all the time.”
The Niskanen family cumulatively won five medals in Beijing, Kerttu’s brother Iivo won gold, silver and bronze over the course of these games.
“We’re both happy,” said Kerttu, referring to herself and her brother, “I am happy that he made an amazing Olympics here. The whole family is waiting for us at home. Everyone is very happy.”
Having taken on much of the lead work for the majority of the race and after her near-medal performance in the skate sprint earlier in the Games, Brennan was once again just outside, finishing in 6th position (+2:38.7).
“[It’s] Frustrating,” said Brennan afterwards, “I literally tried everything I had and nobody wanted to work with me, so I just had to try to do the best I could and unfortunately it wasn’t enough and that’s hard to swallow, but I tried my best.”
Bringing us further inside the experience on course, Brennan continued, “There was a gap that formed [at the beginning] and I just wasn’t in the right place at the right time, and Jessie played that so beautifully, it was amazing. I thought about fighting the wind to bridge it but I had a feeling there would be some places that popped off the back so I was trying to get that group to work with me and keep a steady pace and pick up the people that dropped, but those girls had absolutely zero interest in working with me. I kept yelling at them and being like ‘lets go get them’, and they did nothing. When that happens, there’s not much you can do but ski your own race. I did everything I could. I think the Finns have really fast skis, which was hard for me. I don’t regret trying but I wish it had turned out differently.”
When asked about not sharing the lead, Niskanen (FIN) replied, “I have to say that Rosie was really strong today, she push sometimes really hard to uphills and it was good for me because I thought that we had the best skiers in our group to make a strong speed all the time. I thought that we need to ski fast all the time, but many times I was tired and sometimes I thought that Rosie go in front of me but I think I had a little bit faster skis today so it helps me a little bit. I think everyone was really really tired, a long trip, many many races, and I was tired but today’s race was like a tired girls competition.”
Brennan confirmed that her skis were not competitive with those of the Finns, and when asked about seeing those athletes ski past her after she had done so much pulling she said, “It’s definitely a little demoralizing. Especially since I don’t think I had the skis to match that, I wasn’t able to get enough of a gap on the uphill to hold it on the downhill and that’s always a bummer but that’s a part of ski racing too.”
In the end, Brennan reflected, “I feel very confident that I’m in the best shape of my life this past week and I did everything I could to be in a place to win a medal and the rest is just largely out of my control. I can’t control the weather, I can’t control my skis, I did everything I could to prepare for the day so I have to be proud of that.”
Brennan also gave a shout-out to her supporters at home, saying, “I’m overwhelmed with all the support I’ve received, especially given the time [difference] and the number of people that have become nocturnal to cheer me on. It really means so much.”
“I’m so happy for Jessie, and I never wanted a podium more for someone like Rosie today.” said USST head coach, Matt Whitcomb, “Nobody deserves it more or less than anybody [else]. You just see Rosie come so close and all this hard work, and she’s at the absolute peak of her career, it’s been a long wonderful career, a challenging career, and you just want to see a medal wrapped around her neck. And so, if there’s something to take away from today, it’s one of the most successful days in US skiing history.”
Speaking to Brennan’s work leading the chase pack for much of the race he said, “[Niskanen’s] bronze medal was in large part earned by Rosie, and everybody knows it. And that’s just racing, it’s like a game of poker. Every time Rosie would try to pull aside and let someone else lead they would not. And there’s nothing wrong with that, that’s just tactics, but 10 seconds would open up every time she did so she would stay on the gas. She had no other choice. She did the only thing she could have done.”
Minutes later, the camera showed an American skier who had gone the wrong way, entering the lap instead of the finish. It turned out to be Laukli, who had to double-back and in the process was passed by the Weng twins, Tiril and Lotta, of Norway. In the end, Laukli came across the line 15th, +6:27.2 back.
“I’m bummed for her,” said coach Chris Grover, “that she lost two places because she worked hard for those but she did the right thing, retracing her steps all the way back and that’s one of the lessons that you do once on the big show and then you never do it again. Jessie did it in Sochi.”
He continued, “It’s just an outstanding performance [by all the women] we had great skis. The techs did a great job.”
Laukli was followed just seconds later by her teammate Novie McCabe who completed her Olympics with an Olympic personal-best 18th place (+6:28.5) after an impressive few weeks of race efforts. McCabe was 24th in the 10 k classic, and helped the American women to 6th in the relay last week.
The scene at the finish line was reminiscent of the top of the Alpe Cermis after the Tour de Ski, skiers lay sprawled on the snow as staff members rushed to get them into warmer clothes.
Diggins was unable to stand on her own and was escorted out of the finish pen with two helpers on either side.
Grover shared, “Jessie had food poisoning 36 hours ago and had a really rough night, she didn’t ski the last few days. You could see out there, her body language, for the last two laps she did not look fresh and for her to hang on like that for those two laps was an unbelievable athletic and mental performance. [Diggins] asked Matt in the feed zone what lap she was on and we had to tell her she was in the third lap, she had one more to go and then when she needed to go to the finish.”
He added, ““I think this might have been the deepest she’s ever dug.”
Leading the way for the Canadians, Cendrine Browne finished in 16th (+6:27.6).
“[This is a] Canadian record in a mass-start at the Olympics and it’s also my personal best,” said Browne, “It’s amazing to leave the Olympics on such a high note. I’m thrilled, I have no words. It was tough conditions out there, really cold, very windy but I think I played it well. In the last lap there was an attack and I was able to stay with the group and pull away to finish 16th.”
In a race with giant time margins, Kathrine Stewart-Jones notched 30th, +7:39.3 behind Johaug. Dahria Beatty was 39th (+11:14.2) and Laura LeClair was 51st (+15:20.5).
Jessica Yeaton, competing for Australia, was 43rd (+12:12.1).
World Cup racing resumes next weekend in Lahti, Finland with a skate sprint and 10 k classic for the women.
Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.