OlympicsRacingDiggins Writes History as First American Woman to Earn Individual Olympic Medal With Bronze in the Freestyle Sprint

Rachel PerkinsFebruary 8, 2022

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The History:

A survey of the last five Olympic cycles shows a clear trend in American women’s sprint results: upward. In the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, no Americans qualified in the freestyle sprint. Tessa Benoit was the top qualifier in 38th, with an up-and-coming Kikkan Randall next for Team USA in 44th. Randall was then 20 years old. 

In the freestyle sprint four years later in Torino, Randall was the only American to qualify for the heats. She was 10th in qualification, then moved to 9th in the final standings. Switching to classic for the 2010 Games in Vancouver, Randall again qualified in 10th to be the only American in the heats, this time racing her way up to eighth. 

And then there was Sochi. 

The 2014 Games in Sochi were a turning point for the American squad, with all four women qualifying inside the Top-30 in the freestyle sprint. This time, a new name topped the list for qualification: Sophie Caldwell in 9th. Not to be overlooked, USA also had Jessie Diggins 12th, Kikkan Randall 18th, and Ida Sargent 25th.

Racing in her first Olympiad, Caldwell (now Hamilton) entered uncharted territory as she won her quarterfinal to advance into the semis, which she finished in a thrilling boot slide to be 0.1 seconds behind heat winner Ingvild Flugstad Østberg of Norway. Though she crashed in the final, she again moved the needle upward for the Americans by finishing sixth in the final heat. 

The remaining American women also finished inside the Top-20, though none made it beyond the quarterfinals. Diggins was 13th, Randall 18th, and Sargent 19th.

The American women’s sprint team prepares for the individual freestyle sprint. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Carrying momentum from these Games through the next Olympic quad, the Americans had three women in the Top-30 for the classic sprint in PyeongChang in 2018, with Sargent just outside in 33rd. 

This time it was Diggins in 7th – the top Olympic qualification result of any American woman – with Sadie Bjornsen 9th, and Caldwell 12th. 

Despite it being her weaker technique, Diggins raced with confidence, landing in second in both her quarter and semi to advance automatically into the final. Losing touch with the leaders, Diggins repeated Caldwell’s historic result to finish 6th overall. 

Perhaps a less apparent victory, Caldwell also raced into the semis, finishing 8th overall after taking third in her semi and missing a lucky loser spot in the final by just 0.18 seconds. Bjornsen was eliminated in her quarter after taking third in her quarter, on the wrong side of the lucky loser mark, but just barely, to end her day in 14th. 

Fast forward four years and get excited. 

Rosie Brennan (USA) on her way to the 2nd fastest time during qualification. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Sweden’s Jonna Sundling smashed the qualification round of the 1.5-kilometer freestyle sprint, setting the mark at 3:09.03. The next name on the list? Rosie Brennan in second (+5.80), ahead of Nadine Fähndrich (SUI) in third (+6.62), Yulia Stupak (ROC) fourth (+7.98), and… Diggins in fifth (+8.69). 

Have you been reading closely? Both Brennan and Diggins both exceeded the previous best result in qualification from any American woman in history. 

Also posting a strong qualifier, Julia Kern was 14th in qualification (+11.66), rebounding from Saturday’s skiathlon which left her wanting more. The final American starter, Hannah Halvorsen, finished 43rd (+20.10)  in qualification – outside the Top-30, but still above Randall’s result from her first Olympic Games 20 years ago.

Jessie Diggins (USA) skis the 5th fastest time during qualification. (Photo: NordicFocus)

You may be wondering about the spread of times; the top-10 were nearly 11 seconds apart. After a quick descent out of the stadium, the course in Zhangjiakou features a 30-meter climb – nearly 100 vertical feet – followed by a sweeping downhill that leads back toward the stadium. From there, athletes face a 14-meter climb back into the stadium, finishing with a gradual rise to the line. Combined with cold dry snow, these factors can contribute to an above-average spread amongst the top qualifiers. 

 

Here we go: the heats.

Brennan lined up alongside Sweden’s Sundling in the first quarterfinal heat. With nerves running high, a false start brought the six women back into the gate after the first starting beep. On the second go, the women pushed through the wands cleanly, but on one of her first doublepole pushes, Brennan caught the edge of her boot, dropping down to her knees and losing any momentum she had picked up as the field rocketed away from her. 

Not willing to let the day end there, Brennan collected herself and focused on the task at hand, regaining contact with the group at the bottom of the climb and grinding her way into second position, looking strong as she crested the top of the hill just behind Sundling and rounded the curve to head into the descent. 

After stumbling out of the start, Rosie Brennan (USA) charges back to the front of her quarterfinal heat. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Given the effort required for such a comeback, would there be enough left in the tank for the B-climb or had the matches been burned early? With Sundling holding steady in the lead Brennan was challenged by Slovenian sprint champion Anamarija Lampic as the women pushed up the final climb, but found another gear for a commanding second-place finish, +2.4 behind Sundling, but +0.7 ahead of Lampic, who would advance as a lucky loser. 

The second heat featured medal favorite Maja Dahlqvist of Sweden, who qualified in sixth. Norway’s Tiril Udnes Weng set the pace, leading up the A-climb with Dahlqvist alongside, and Russia’s Natalia Nepryaeva on their tails. Powering out of the B-Climb, Dahlqvist held the advantage at the front, while Nepryaeva and Weng slid over the line in a photo finish for second and third. A closer look showed Weng’s boot accelerate as she reached forward, just in time to nip Nepryaeva at the line by 0.03 seconds for the automatic advancement to the semifinal. The second heat was six seconds slower than the first, leaving Nepryaeva out of the running for a lucky loser spot.

A fast third heat saw Nadine Fähndrich of Switzerland and Maiken Caspersen Falla advance automatically, pulling Germany’s Victoria Carl over the line as the second lucky loser.

Dancing and smiling in the start gate, Diggins got out with a clean start, positioned near the front and looking powerful as the women headed into the downhill curve out of the stadium. Around this curve, she was pushed to the outside as she skied defensively to dodge potential snags with the other skiers’ equipment, leaving the curve near the back of the pack.

Jessie Diggins (USA) leads Emma Ribom (SWE) in the early rounds. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Then, Diggins put on a show up the climb. Steadily moving up along the outside, she was perfectly balanced in a crisp V2 while other were in V1, catching the Swedish leader Emma Ribom. Leading over the top, Diggins kept the pace high to take the sting out of other sprinters. Carrying momentum out of the descent and again holding a strong V2 up the B-Climb, Diggins carried her lead through the finish to win by over 2 seconds, with Ribom next. There was no doubt that Diggins was looking good heading into the semi.

In the final quarter, Julia Kern pushed the pace in the first half, positioning herself in the lead as the pack headed out of the climb. She held her position through the downhill and around the hard right turn, carrying momentum into the hill. Perhaps paying for her efforts early on, Kern was dropped on the final climb as Veronika Stepanova (ROC) and Sofie Krehl (GER) broke away before heading into the stadium. Kern kept herself in the fight, staying in contact with Alina Meier (SUI) through the false flat to the finish, but ended up fourth in the heat, +3.5 back from the leader and behind the mark needed for a lucky loser spot in the semis. A gusty and tactical performance in her first Olympic sprint appearance.

Julia Kern (USA) led her quarterfinal early during the individual freestyle sprint. (Photo: NordicFocus)

To regroup: we now have two Americans in the semi, matching the previous best result from 2018.

Lining up in the first heat of the semis, Brennan got out of the start smoothly, tucking into the back of the back to safely descend out of the stadium and carry momentum out of the left-hand bend and into the A-climb. 

Following the effective, albeit unforeseen, strategy from her first round, Brennan pushed her way up the A-Climb, moving from sixth place into the lead. The American kept the effort high as she pulled Sundling, Dahlqvist, Fähndrich. Brennan charged the downhill, stepping powerfully around the right hand bend to head into the B-climb at high speed. In the second climb, the two Swedes, Sundling and Dahlqvist, worked their way around Brennan, with Fähndrich also accelerating. No relief until the finish, Brennan did not let up in the undulating terrain that follows the B-climb, rounding the final curve in fourth place just behind Dahlqvist.  

After setting a fast pace for the heat, Rosie Brennan finishes fourth in her semifinal to advance as a lucky loser. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Sundling stretched out the spread of the top-four in the final stretch to take the win in 3:11.94, with Fähndrich second, Dahlqvist third, and Brennan fourth, +1.35 behind Sundling. Brennan’s efforts to keep the pace hot contributed to a lightning fast heat, with Sundling’s time nearly four seconds faster than the top finish in the quarterfinal. This left Brennan in good standing for a lucky loser spot in the final, but she would need to hold her breath to see what the second heat would decide.

The second semi was quick out of the gate, with Sweden’s Ribom leading up the start of the A-climb. Diggins was comfortably tucked into the pack, beginning to set her race plan into action as she V2ed steadily up the side of the track, holding her form longer than the others as she moved into the lead. Nearing the high point, Diggins switched to a rapid tempo V1 with Norway’s Falla matching pace to head out of the climb in first and second. 

Diggins sat in a low tuck at the front, stepping around the sweeping left-hander and heading into the B-Climb with Ribom and Falla trying to match pace and challenge at the front. Ribom moved ahead near the top of the climb to lead into the final curve. Diggins sat on the Swede’s tails, with Stepanova alongside. A bobble zapped some of Diggins’ momentum and could have been devastating, but the American kept her composure and stayed upright, staying in contact with Ribom as they headed into the finish lanes. 

With Ribom in the lead, Diggins powered toward the finish line to secure a second place auto-qualifier spot for the final. She crossed the line +0.4 behind Ribom’s mark of 3:15.22, with Falla and Stepanova crossing in third and fourth a few meters back. 

As the second heat times were roughly four seconds slower than the first, Brennan could let out a sigh of relief. The second lucky loser spot was now hers. 

And now, we watch history unfold. Two American women in the final, as Brennan and Diggins set a new mark for the stars and stripes. 

The final lineup saw Sundling, Dahlqvist, and Ribom racing for Sweden, alongside Diggins and Brennan, with Fähndrich representing Switzerland in red.

Emma Ribom (SWE), Nadine Faehndrich (SUI), Rosie Brennan (USA) and Maja Dahlqvist (SWE), (l-r) get up to speed at the beginning of the women’s individual sprint final. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Taking charge from the start, Sundling skied with authority, smoothly leading her teammates Dahlqvist and Ribom up the A-climb to put Sweden in first through third heading out of the climb. Diggins was fourth as they crested the high point, with Fähndrich on her tails and Brennan just behind.

Utilizing the speed of her skis and her strength in the downhill, Diggins moved up alongside the Swedes in the descent, looking for position heading into the final climb. Maintaining her command of the race, Sundling rocketed off the front to gap the remaining five women who all remained in contention for a medal leaving the climb.

Ribom quickly fell off the pack, leaving Dahlqvist leading a tight group of four over the undulating terrain that led to the final bend before the stadium. Diggins and Brennan looked to be boxed out as they headed around the final curve in third and fourth, respectively, but the Americans were patient versus panicked, which could put them at risk of a fall. 

Coming out of the curve, Diggins accelerated around Fähndrich to challenge Dahlqvist for the silver medal. Brennan followed her teammate to surge past the fading Swiss athlete, setting the stage for a three-way sprint for two podium positions.

Sundling had gold on lock, nearly three seconds ahead as she crossed the finish line in 3:09.68. 

Jonna Sundling (SWE) with a commanding victory in the individual freestyle sprint comes to the finish with Rosie Brennan (USA) in the background on her way to fourth. (Photo: NordicFocus)

In her wake, Dahlqvist and Diggins were taking it to the line, with the Swede carrying a slight advantage in the final meters. Still, with Brennan close behind and both Fähndrich and Ribom off the back, the Americans were almost guaranteed their first individual medal in history. 

Skiing their fastest splits of the day, Dahlqvist held her ground to the silver medal (+2.88), with Diggins on her right, less than a ski length back for bronze (+3.16).  

Jessie Diggins crosses the line in third to earn the first individual Olympic medal in women’s cross country ski history. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Just over a second back, Brennan crossed fourth (+4.49), for the second best individual finish in American women’s history. The Americans maintained a gap to Fähndrich in fifth (+7.21) and Ribom sixth (+11.11). 

Diggins collapsed to the ground, overcome by the emotion of what she had accomplished. Perhaps a testament to her team-centric approach, she was heard saying, “Good job, Rosie!” between gasps, as she got back to her feet to immediately hug the coaches, support staff, and teammates that lined the edge of the course.

Jessie Diggins hugs her coaches and teammates after finishing third in the individual freestyle sprint in Zhangjiakou. (Photo: NordicFocus)
An emotional Jessie Diggins wraps the American flag around her shoulders after taking bronze in the freestyle sprint. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Tearfully wrapping an American flag around her shoulders, Diggins was aglow as she savored the moment before heading back to the finish to stand alongside Sundling and Dalhqvist for the podium shot. 

Jonna Sundling (SWE) takes gold in the freestyle sprint, ahead of Maja Dahlqvist (SWE) and Jessie Diggins (USA). (Photo: NordicFocus)

Though she was the one whose name would be highlighted in history books, Diggins focus on the importance of those around her remained at the forefront as she celebrated the many victories of the American team in today’s event. 

“It was so cool to be there with Rosie,” Diggins said in the mixed zone. “She’s skiing so amazingly well… and I’m just so grateful. That’s the overwhelming emotion, because it takes so much from such a huge team to make this happen. And we had obviously amazing skis, but also amazing teammates for years and years and years, helping me train, pushing me, supporting me – amazing coaches, amazing volunteer staff. You can’t even imagine how much it took from so many people, and so I’m just so thankful because I feel like this medal belongs to about 1000 different people. And I hope they really feel that and know that.”

Jessie Diggins takes Olympic bronze in the freestyle team sprint. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Of her approach to the course, Diggins gave a simple response, acknowledging that she has a way of blacking out while having great races, “which is really annoying,” she laughed, “because I’d love to be able to remember exactly what I did.”

“I was just so focused on trying to push as hard as I could,” Diggins explained. “Just trying to ski as well as I could and stay balanced. The snow felt a little greasy, so especially in the finishing lane, just trying to put as much power as I could into every single push. And honestly, that’s all I can remember.”

Jessie Diggins (USA) on her way to the USA’s first ever individual women’s medal in the Olympics. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Perhaps the FasterSkier audience needs no reminder that Diggins came into the 2022 Games as a gold medalist, having won the freestyle team sprint with Kikkan Randall in 2018, a day that brought many Americans, including this writer, to tears. Diggins was asked to reflect on the last four years, and the progress she’s made in her career. 

“The last four years, I’ve really found my voice,” Diggins said confidently. “I’ve really found a lot of my purpose, and I feel like I’ve grown a lot. But also, I’m exactly the same person in pretty much every other way. I think one of the big things has been dealing with is the pressure and expectations, because there’s been a lot of it, and it hasn’t been easy. So for me, I think it was such a victory just to make it to the final and know that I’m skiing well. I came into this as prepared as I could be, which one of my biggest goals was to come in prepared. The second goal, cross the finish line with nothing left. And the third goal was to just have fun, and keep focusing on the process, because that’s what gets me where I am today. Like win, lose, or draw, it’s just focusing on the process and, and executing those process goals to the very best of my ability, because then I’m always proud of how I finished. I’m just proud of this effort today as I was at the skiathlon, even though they were different outcomes.”

Jessie Diggins was all smiles as she passed through the mixed zone following her bronze medal performance in the women’s individual sprint. (Photo: Nat Herz/FasterSkier-ADN)

Fourth place at the Olympics – fourth in the world on its most prestigious stage – is both a truly incredible feat and perhaps the most challenging final rank to wrap one’s head around. The “wooden medal”, just shy of the Olympic hardware skiers dream about from their youth. 

“Fourth place was hard,” Brennan said honestly in the mixed zone. “You feel really happy and also frustrated at the same time. I have a lot of mixed emotions about it. But I did everything I could today, and maybe not everything went perfectly my way. But I have to be happy with that at the end of the day.”

Jessie Diggins (USA) and Rosie Brennan find their position in the early moments of the women’s final. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Asked what she would have said if four years ago, someone told her she would be in this position, Brennan laughed, “I probably wouldn’t have believed it so much.”

She talked through a rough start to the day, sharing that she has always struggled with start gates and had spent the last six weeks practicing to ensure a clean start.

“So, there I was on the ground, I was like, ‘So much for all that practice.’ But I knew my strength was in the climb, so I just had to pull it back [together] and focus on the all the time I had left and see what I could do to try and make it up.” 

On her approach through the heats, Brennan played to her strengths, recognizing she could take the lead, work the hills, and not let her heats unfold as a casual first 1200 meters with a tactical final sprint that might leave her in the dust.

“My strength lies more in the endurance aspect of it,” she explained. “I tried to just keep the pace high so that I could count on being a lucky loser – by having a fast heat time. So that was my strategy in the semifinal, and it worked. Once I got to the final, I tried to then be a little more smart about my racing. I tried to be patient and wait until the last climb. I was a little far back, so I kind of got the door closed on me to make it through. So I had to kind of adjust and go for a strong finish sprint, which isn’t always my strength. But I did all I could do.”

With Ben Ogden racing into the semis in the men’s race, it was an historic day for the American program as a whole. Speaking to this landmark day, Brennan concluded with an inspiring message for those who dream of following in their footsteps.

“I think it shows the growing depth in our country. And I hope it shows a lot of people just to have some patience and keep training, keep going for it. You never know where you’ll end up.”

Jonna Sundling (SWE) takes gold in her first Olympic appearance in the women’s freestyle sprint. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Taking a closer look at the winner, Sundling is the 2018 World Champion in the freestyle sprint. Returning from injury, she has built her way into the season. Though Dahlqvist has shined as the undefeated World Cup star for Sweden, Sundling has crept up alongside, taking second to Dahlqvist in the individual sprint in Dresden, and working together to win the team sprint. Sitting out the Tour de Ski, Sundling beat Dahlqvist in their next matchup in a Scandinavian Cup race in Falun, Sweden.

This is Sundling’s first Olympic appearance, though she and Dahlqvist will be a likely pairing in the classic team sprint next Wednesday.

Once the final rounds were complete, Kern’s final placement was determined to be 18th. This marks a significant step forward from her first appearance in the skiathlon, where she finished 53rd. 

Julia Kern (USA), who finished in 18th place overall, pushes to the finish during her quarterfinal round. (Photo: NordicFocus)

“It was really tough out there, but a lot of fun to have a challenging course and give it my all,” Kern told FasterSkier in the mixed zone.

Dahria Beatty 28th in qualification (+14.51) to be the only Canadian woman to make the heats. Beatty raced in the first semifinal, where she finished fifth in the heat to finish 25th on the day. 

Just 0.7 seconds off the top-30 mark, Cendrine Browne was 35th in qualification (+15.82) with Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt close behind in 40th (+16.89). Laura Leclair rounded out the Canadian team in 58th (+26.28). 

Dahria Beatty (CAN) races in the quarterfinals on her way to 25th place overall. (Photo: NordicFocus)

An Australian dual citizen who is a long-time APU team member, Jessica Yeaton was 52nd (+23.82) in the qualifying round. 

Results:

Qualification | Final

Rachel Perkins

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

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