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Snapping back after a week away from racing, the World Cup resumed in wintery Lahti, Finland with a 1.6 kilometer freestyle sprint. The American women made their presence immediately known, landing three of five athletes in the top-five in qualification, with four in the top-30.
On the heels of a bronze medal in the event, Jessie Diggins was second in qualification, +6.71 behind the time of 3:17.37 posted by Sweden’s Olympic champion Jonna Sundling. Julia Kern was next for the U.S. in fourth (+7.59) behind Russia’s Natalia Nepryaeva, with Rosie Brennan just behind in fifth (+8.61). Hailey Swirbul also raced into the heats, skiing to 26th in qualification (+16.56).
Leading the Canada team Cendrine Browne raced to 29th in qualification (+17.37), advancing to the heats.
Racing in heat five, Diggins moved to the front of the pack inside the first minute of racing, with Kern on her tails heading up the first climb, with Julia sliding back to third in the following descent. Nevertheless, the Americans maintained control of the heat heading up the climb and around the course’s hairpin turn, where cheers could be heard from the sidelines, urging “Alright, Jessie! Alright, Julia! Hard over the top! Hard over the top! Come on, push, push, push!”
Rounding the final bend to the finish, the Americans were side by side at the front, with Sweden’s Anna Divyk looking for an opportunity to sneak through from their draft. Kern was on the inside of the bend, stepping powerfully to maintain her momentum as the threesome headed into the final 100 meter sprint. Still right alongside her teammate, Kern led the boot throw to win the heat, with Diggins +0.1 back, and the Swede on their tails to cross the line +0.39 seconds back in third. As the fifth heat proved to be the fastest of the quarterfinal, Czech athlete Katerina Janatova also advanced as a lucky loser after finishing in fourth, just over a second behind Divyk.
In the first semifinal, it was Sundling and Dahlqvist at the front, with teammate Emma Ribom and Nepryaeva jockeying for the third and fourth positions through the first half. The Swedes rounded the hairpin in first through third, but Nepryaeva, Nadine Fähndrich (SUI), and Janatova remained close on their heels. Coming into the finish lanes, it was Sundling in front, with Ribom nipping Dahlqvist at the line by 0.11 seconds. Nepryaeva crossed fourth, 0.6 back from Dahlqvist, leaving the two awaiting the outcome of the next semi to determine their fate heading into the final round.
The Americans raced in the second semi, along with an additional two Swedes, Divyk and Johanna Hagström, plus Slovenia’s Anamarija Lampic and a German, Coletta Rydzek.
Heading up the climb to the hairpin, it was Diggins at the front, with Hagström on her tails and Lampic maintaining contact. The group had thinned, leaving the remaining three women trailing behind on the descent with a gap between each.
In the adrenaline-filled final meters, it looked like Hagström would hold the advantage to the line, but a high tempo Diggins and accelerating Lampic were closing fast. Throwing their boots three abreast, the women crossed the line dead-even for a three-way photo finish.
A slow motion replay of the slide showed that it was Lampic who crossed first, with Diggins .03 seconds behind, and Hagström in third, separated by an additional 0.01 second. With Lampic’s time clocked roughly 0.7 seconds slower than Nepryaeva’s in the first semi, only the top two women advanced, leaving Hagström just off the mark.
Kern crossed fourth in the heat (+1.94) to end her day in eighth overall.
“Today was a lot of fun,” Kern said in a U.S. Ski & Snowboard press release. “The conditions were great, the stadium and course were filled with lively spectators and I was really excited to get back to racing the World Cup! I felt like I had a lot of great energy today, skied well, and enjoyed the awesome atmosphere while racing side-by-side with Jessie in the heats! I was stoked to put down maybe my best World Cup qualifier and see that my body is ready to fire after the Olympics.
“I have only raced two races in the last two months,” Kern continued, “so I have been excited for Period 4 World Cups with lots of racing opportunities. I am someone who loves to race. I had a blast skiing with Jessie in the heats today, we train together all year long, working hard and pushing each other, and also rooming together, so it is fun to ski well together and take charge of the heats. ”
Sundling looked to leave nothing to chance in the final, gapping the field before the halfway point, with Lampic and Ribom leading the chase group a few seconds back.
Descending from the hairpin, the Swedes were in first through third, with Sundling still well off the front. Diggins had moved up onto Dahlqvist’s tails in fourth, which she held heading around the final bend into the stadium and into the lanes.
While Sundling cruised cross the line for the win in 3:12.86, it was Ribom and Dalqvist fighting for the second and third spots to determine the order of a Swedish podium sweep. It was Ribom in second at the line (+3.28), fending off Dahlqvist in third (+3.67), interrupting her streak of World Cup wins this season.
Diggins held her ground close behind the Swedes in fourth (+3.93), with Lampic closing fast for fifth (+4.01). Nepryaeva closed out the women’s final in the sixth spot (+4.69).
Following the race, Diggins said she was happy to be feeling like herself again following the brief post-Olympic break. It was just six days ago that Diggins fought through food poisoning induced fatigue, cramping, and delirium to earn a silver medal in the 30 k skate.
“I was incredibly tired after the Olympics,” Diggins said in a post-race audio clip, embedded below. “That 30 k took more out of me than maybe any race in my entire life. So I was just feeling lucky to be out there and racing and able to feel like my body is back.”
In addition to providing insights into how things shook our for her, Diggins commented on the experience of watching newer members of the team earn their first World Cup starts, specifically Lauren Jortberg, Bill Harmeyer, and Logan Diekmann.
“Happy to be part of that rite of passage. That was really, really fun.”
“I feel amazing right now,” Sundling said of her win in a post-race interview with FIS at the finish. “I think I’m in a good place in my career and it feels really good to ski right now. Today, I just tried to trust my skiing and it went really [well], so I’m happy.”
When asked about the Swedish podium sweep, Sundling broke into a wide grin. “I’m so happy, and for Emma, it is her first, so it’s really good.”
After sharing the lead with Slovenia’s Lampic through the second half of the fourth quarterfinal, Brennan rounded the final bend into the finish in second position, moving to Lampic’s right with 50 meters to go. While Lampic maintained a lead by several meters, Germany’s Rydzek crept up alongside Brennan, throwing her boot at the line to edge out the American by 0.04 seconds. As the third heat saw times roughly four seconds faster than the fourth, Brennan was unable to advance as a lucky loser and ended her day in 13th.
Crossing in sixth in heat one of the quarterfinal, which saw Sundling and Nepryaeva go one-two, Swirbul finished 28th today. Swirbul maintained contact with the lead pack through the hairpin turn, where Sundling and Nepryaeva accelerated off the front to thin the pack.
Canada’s Browne also ended her day in the quarters after racing in heat two. Browne was +2.19 behind Sweden’s Maja Dahlqvist who comfortably won the heat, with the Canadian in sixth to end her day in
Also racing for the U.S., BSF Pro Team’s Lauren Jortberg raced was pulled up from the SuperTour for her first World Cup appearance. Jortberg is ranked 11th overall in the SuperTour standings and is third on the sprint list behind APU’s Rosie Frankowski and Becca Rorabaugh, both of whom opted to race the American Birkie this weekend.
Outside the top-30 for Canada, Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt was 33rd today, less than a second away from the heats, with her teammate Dahria Beatty just 0.25 seconds behind her in 34th. Laura Leclair was the final Canadian racer in the women’s field, finishing 54th in qualification (+25.41).
Women’s racing continues tomorrow in Lahti with a 10 k individual start classic.
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