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The team sprint: two skiers racing three laps each at roughly 1.5-kilometers a piece with a long climb thrown into the middle of the course and temperatures in the single digits Fahrenheit. It boils a sport that already requires both power and endurance down to its essence.
Riding the high of their silver medal in the women’s 4 x 5 k relay, the duo from Germany, Katharina Hennig and Victoria Carl, won a thrilling sprint finish to decide the medals, collecting gold in a time of 22:09.85. To take the stop spot, the anchor, Carl, out-sprinted the Swedish individual freestyle sprint gold medalist, Jonna Sundling, in the final meters to win by just 0.17 seconds, while the Russian Olympic Committee’s Natalia Nepryaeva crossed just behind in third (+0.71).
After holding strong in medal contention throughout the first five of six laps, the American pair of Rosie Brennan and Jessie Diggins lost contact with the leaders in the final leg, crossing the line fifth (+12.93) behind Finland in fourth (+3.86).
Now, let’s take a step back.
There is, perhaps, no reminder needed that USA won the team sprint in 2018; Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins collected the first Olympic medal for the United States in cross country skiing – a gold, no less – since Bill Koch took silver in the 30 k classic in 1976. However, the team sprint in PyeongChang was raced freestyle, whereas today’s team sprint would be held in classic.
“I’m not trying to compare today to four years ago,” said Diggins in the mixed zone after the race. “It’s a different course, different altitude, different technique, like literally nothing is the same and, and that’s okay. I think today, I was going out there and skiing for Rosie and skiing as hard as I could and as best I could… but I’m really proud of this race and proud of giving it our best fight.”
We have to look back eight years for a classic team sprint at the Olympic Winter Games, to the 2014 Games in Sochi. Norway took the gold that day in dominant fashion ahead of Finland and Sweden, who were stretched behind by roughly ten seconds a piece. Only one of the six women on the podium returned to the Games in 2022, again making the team sprint roster: Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen. The American pairing of Sophie Caldwell (now Hamilton) and Kikkan Randall were sixth in Sochi, +35.06 back on the Norwegian winners.
In the intermediate FIS World Championships, the Americans finished fifth both years, racing Brennan and Sadie Bjornsen (now Maubet) in the freestyle competition in Oberstdorf, Germany in 2021, and pairing Bjornsen with Diggins for the classic team sprint in Seefeld, Austria in 2019. In Oberstdorf, the Americans missed the podium by roughly 2.2 seconds, finishing 2.8 seconds behind the winning team from Sweden. In 2021, they missed the podium by an equivalent margin, this time finishing 5.8 seconds back in the overall standings, again to Sweden. It’s a mark of consistency and depth across techniques for the American women.
To make the team sprint final, each team must finish in the top-two of semifinal A or B, or be within the next six fastest times from either heat. The U.S. was second to Germany (+4.03) in Semifinal A, while the ROC won the second semi in a close finish with Finland in second (+0.35) and Sweden third (+1.0). Austria and Switzerland also advanced from the first semi, with Sweden, Norway, France, and Poland filling the remaining spots from semifinal B.
With bursts of frozen mist released from their mouths, the athletes took to the course for the final round, with Yulia Stupak (ROC), Maja Dahlqvist (SWE), Kerttu Niskanen (FIN), Tiril Udnes Weng (NOR), and Katharina Hennig (GER) racing with Brennan at the front of the pack.
With a hooded parka draped over her, face tape obscuring her normally glittery cheekbones, and heated socks inside her boots, Diggins waited in the exchange for the tag. She would be facing Natalia Nepryaeva (ROC), Jonna Sundling (SWE), Krista Pärmäkoski (FIN), Maiken Caspersen Falla (NOR), and Victoria Carl (GER) in the even-numbered legs.
Racing comfortably near the front with skis that looked competitive for both kick and glide, Brennan tagged Diggins +1.1 second back on Finland in fourth, well within the lead group. In what would become a pattern for her first two legs, Diggins quickly moved to the front to control the race and ensure a fast pace, perhaps risking accumulating her own fatigue while also taking the sting out of the legs of the individual sprint gold and silver medalists of Sweden, who had also won the World Championship gold in 2021.
Diggins tagged Brennan virtually even with Sweden and Finland after her first lap, a position Brennan was able to hold through her second leg. Near the bottom of the long, grinding climb to the high point of the course, Norway’s Weng wobbled slightly, placing her pole in front of Dahlqvist’s ski to catch her balance. Weng’s pole snapped, leaving her running up the sidelines of the climb with one pole, detaching her strap to grab another from a coach who stood along the fenceline. This lost Norway several seconds, which they were unable to regain in subsequent legs, leaving the team out of podium contention.
On the odd legs, Niskanen of Finland consistently controlled the race at the front, putting the powerful stride that earned her a silver medal in the 10 k last week on display as she led up the climb in each round. She tagged her teammate Pärmäkoski in the lead at the halfway mark, with Germany, the ROC, and USA within a second back.
Diggins again charged to the front, her hands and legs pumping metronomically as she drove her skis up the climb. Diggins crested the hill in front, with Sundling and Pärmäkoski on her tails heading into the descent. A gap had opened to Germany and the ROC, but these teams had lightning fast glide and were able to regain contact in the descent.
At 6 k, with four of six legs complete, it was Sweden and Finland in the lead at the exchange, with Brennan receiving a tag 2.5 seconds back. Niskanen again set the pace at the front, still looking strong as she pushed the pace up the A-climb, with Dahlqvist matching pace behind. In a critical moment where loss of contact might have meant accepting a podium was not in the cards on the day, Brennan accelerated up the climb, steadily closing the gap to the Swede ahead of her.
An aerial shot showed Brennan upping her tempo as she brought the U.S. back in contact with the leaders, bringing Hennig and Stupak along with her. All five women dropped into a tuck as they headed downhill together, rounding the sweeping right-hand bend and sprinting up a final climb before the last exchange. Throwing her hands up the hill in a run, Brennan challenged Sweden’s Dahlqvist on the final uphill, double poling around a left-hand bend into the exchange in third behind Germany and Finland.
In the last lap, Diggins went hunting. With Pärmäkoski and Carl leading the charge up the climb, Diggins would need to work the hill. Striding powerfully, Diggins did everything she could to keep her team in contact with the leaders, but it was not enough on the day. Doublepoling across the false flat before the descent, it was Pärmäkoski leading Carl, Nepryaeva, and Sundling.
The leaders were four abreast coming around the final bend, with Pärmäkoski and Sundling pushed into the outer two lanes, leaving them at a deficit as they headed up the final climb to the stadium.
Cresting the rise, Carl looked to be falling off the pace, while Nepryaeva and Sundling pulled to the front, the Swede leading around the final left-hand corner into the finish.
But Germany wasn’t done yet. Carl moved up along the outside of the bend, challenging Sundling as they headed into the finish lanes. Doublepoling powerfully, Carl began to slowly pull ahead of Sweden, with the ROC dropping back a few meters behind.
In a surprise upset of the Swedish favorites, Carl took it to the line, holding off Sundling as she crossed the line in 22:09.85, welcomed by her ecstatically screaming partner Hennig. Sundling was just 0.17 seconds back for silver, with Nepryaeva unopposed for bronze on their tails (+0.71).
After falling off the leaders in the final climb, Pärmäkoski brought Finland to the line in fourth (+3.86) with Diggins holding strong after a gap to cross fifth (+12.93).
“It means a lot for us,” Hennig told the media after her race. “Also the silver medal in relay and today the gold medal in team sprint. It means a lot and we are very thankful for the whole team. It’s very important for cross-country in Germany.”
Though she was the key player in the final lap, Carl was not originally on the start list. She was substituted for Katherine Sauerbrey, who had skied the first leg of the women’s relay on Saturday. German coach Peter Schlickenreider, who celebrated his 52nd birthday today, explained in the mixed zone that Saurbrey had made a “great decision” to let the team know that she was feeling fatigued and as though she may be getting sick.
From there, the calculus became: “Okay, you have a silver medal, you did a good race [in the relay], and we have prepared Victoria Carl, so she’s ready,” Schlickenreider explained. “So then let’s do the safe thing.”
He added that Germany had raced an athlete, Nicole Fessel, in the team sprint during the 2018 Games who was feeling sick, which proved to be a significant mistake as Fessel struggled with her health for the following three months, before ultimately ending her career. The coaches had vowed never to make this error again.
On the performance of the German skis, which have allowed the team to excel throughout the Games, Schlickenreider explained that waxing has been a focus for the team over the last quadrennial.
“We worked really hard the last four years to get this good team. And I think that’s the main thing, that everybody’s working together so that the athlete and ski technicians were communicating quite well.”
After winning gold in the event, it’s easy to look at a fifth place finish as a disappointment for the American team. But observing the last five seasons, it remains a testament to the consistent strength of the American women’s program, the depth of the field racing at this level, and the fact that ultimately, an Olympic medal is viewed among the highest accomplishments an athlete can achieve purely because it requires the fortuitous coming together of infinitely many pieces to do so.
Both Brennan and Diggins stated with confidence that they were happy with their performances today, highlighting advances made in classic racing throughout the Games.
“I felt really good about my skiing today,” Brennan said. “I think it was one of my better classic races this week, so I’m really happy to put it together by the end of the Olympics. And I did what I could to stay in contact to give Jessie her best shot. And I’m happy with that.”
“I’m really proud of how we skied,” Diggins affirmed. “It was so cool seeing Rosie just crushing, and I went as hard as I could. And there’s no doubt in my mind that I could not have possibly tried harder. I finished with zero sugars left and was dizzy and sick. And I’m currently wearing all the clothes of Team USA… I think we had great skis, or at least I definitely had the kick that I needed. I felt like, technically, this was some of my best classic skiing. And yeah, I’m just really proud of giving it our all because that’s all you can do.”
In NBC’s broadcast, team sprint gold medalist turned analyst Kikkan Randall explained that the Americans knew that competitive skis would be a requirement to allow Brennan and Diggins to fight for a medal today.
Both athletes expressed that their skis were up to the task, particularly for A-climb, which is roughly 400 meters in length (a quarter mile) with nearly 100 feet of elevation gain. Ascending this three times each in the final, optimizing kick could be essential.
“I have to have enough kick, or else I really struggle,” Diggins explained. “So I definitely asked for an extra bump. In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have but also, that’s on me. And I know that that’s what I need. I need to be able to get up the hill. And that was my biggest priority. And so I think having not enough kick would have made me lose more time.”
Both athletes confirmed that they would be racing the final event of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games on Sunday, the 30 k mass start freestyle, barring unforeseen changes. With one last opportunity to fight for medals, Brennan encapsulated the Americans’ outlook on the whirlwind of racing and Olympic hype.
“One thing that the US is really bad at is only caring about the Olympics,” Brennan said in the mixed zone. “But we’re racing and World Cups every weekend all winter long and World Championships on the [odd] years, so if you look at the results from all of those races, you know, this is in the ballpark. I wouldn’t say I had the world’s best races [here] and certainly not the world’s worst races. So it’s been a good experience and we will head straight back to the World Cup and keep fighting for more.”
Racing for Canada, Katherine Stewart-Jones and Dahria Beatty took sixth in the first semifinal and did not advance. They ended the day in 12th overall.
- 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games
- 2022 Olympics
- classic team sprint
- germany team sprint gold
- Jessie Diggins
- Jonna Sundling
- Katharina Hennig
- Katherine Sauerbrey
- Kerttu Niskanen
- Krista Parmakoski
- Maja Dahlqvist
- Natalia Nepryaeva
- olympic team sprint
- Peter Schlickenreider
- Rosie Brennan
- Team Sprint
- Victoria Carl
- yulia stupak
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