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There wasn’t much to be decided, only facts to reaffirmed.
In the last individual race of the World Cup season on Saturday, a 10-kilometer individual start freestyle in Falun, Sweden, the overall World Cup standings of consequence were already decided. Individual season goals for each racer were already moving towards reflection.
Off the course, bare patches of ground seemed to suggest that even the snow was ready to move on from this winter and this ski season. The air was in agreeance; it was 6℃ (44℉) at race start.
And why wouldn’t they be? For all the hints of a return to some kind of normalcy this World Cup season – fans back at venues, a majority of courses covered with natural snow – the World Cup couldn’t out-ski the anxieties and the full-blown winds of change that the winter of 2021-22 has sent around the world. At its conclusion today, the World Cup overall will be awarded to a skier, Natalia Nepryaeva (RUS), who was barred from competing on account of the Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine. Nepryaeva sits atop a World Cup Overall points list that was shaped, and is shaped by, COVID-19 – which forced multiple cancellations of World Cup events in January, and across the season has seen individuals and teams miss races.
All we could hope for from skiing, across this season and at today’s race, was for some sort of center to hold. That we could watch and see something that we had seen before, and that it would bring light and levity to the challenges of the times.
For that type of drama? Well, while World Cup finals may have moved from Siberia to Sweden, their final destination could have been Shakespeare’s Globe.
Woven and interlocked throughout the 10 k individual start were acts ski fans have come to know by heart over the past few years and over the course of this season. But that didn’t make them any less impactful to watch. We would see valiant efforts from early starters, a women’s field where margins are only ever a few seconds throughout a race, capped off, apropos the start order, by the one question that has animated distance racing on the World Cup for nearly a decade, posed for the last time – what about Therese Johaug?
To get to the answer to that question, we would have to wait. In the meantime, the Falun course played host to narratives that followed the contours of its terrain. The 10 k was raced as 3 laps – one 2.5 k loop that was relatively flat, before two laps of a 3.75 k loop where the terrain was punctuated with a set of climbs that would look to separate the field.
The early racer to watch in the field was bib 10, Julia Kern, who came through the 1.5 k checkpoint 3.7 seconds ahead of the field. While the top racers would soon follow, with Frida Karlsson (SWE) eventually topping Kern’s mark as she moved through the course, Kern would prove to be a pace-setter for the earlier starters throughout her 10 k effort. She set the fastest time on course at the finish, but it would fall as seeded athletes followed. Her efforts though, ultimately yielded a 20th place finish (+1:30.3), and the image of Kern crossing the line as a champion (even if it proved temporary) seemed an appropriate conclusion to a season where she had battled to overcome the growing pains of World Cup skiing from last season and prove to be one of those American women that ought to be seen as a force on the start line.
“She raced four rounds yesterday. There was gonna be a limit to the energy, [and yet] she swung really hard today and came up with a big result today. I think a fresh Julia Kern can race with the top ten, and that’s not diminishing her 20th place today. There’s more to give, and that’s exciting” said US Ski Team Head Coach Matt Whitcomb on Kern’s result in an interview with FasterSkier.
Full audio interview with Matt Whitcomb.
Joining her in the category of American women to be excited about throughout the season has been Rosie Brennan and Jessie Diggins. Brennan started in bib 38 today, with Diggins two minutes later in bib 42. They followed the lead of Frida Karlsson and Krista Pärmäkoski throughout the duration of the course. Karlsson, in bib 23, was the first skier to top Kern’s 1.5 k mark, coming in at 2.8 seconds over the field. Pärmäkoski, in bib 30, came through that checkpoint in 2nd, +1.6 back on Karlsson. When Brennan came through, she was +2.5 seconds off Karlsson and in 5th place, and when Diggins came through she was +0.2 off Karlsson and had put herself in 2nd place. The field, in other words, was tight, and those skiers, Karlsson, Pärmäkoski, Brennan, and Diggins – along with Ebba Andersson (SWE) and Kertu Niskanen (FIN) – would jockey and swap places through the remaining 8.5 k.
At 4.3 k, Pärmäkoski had overtaken Karlsson by 1.2 seconds. Brennan came in +1.7 off of Pärmäkoski. Diggins moments later came in +1.8. Through the halfway point with the group the standings read: Pärmäkoski first, Karlsson second, Brennan third, and Diggins fourth, with less than 2 seconds between them.
By 7.7 k, the gaps had started to grow. Pärmäkoski came through with a 14.6 second advantage over Karlsson, while Brennan was +21.6 off the top and back in fourth place. The, in one of the familiar sights that colored the day, Jessie Diggins had started to somehow, someway, increase her pace. She came through 7.7 k now in second place, just +2.6 seconds off of Pärmäkoski.
At 9.1 k, Pärmäkoski still had first place, but Diggins had cut her deficit to a mere +0.6 seconds. As Pärmäkoski crossed the finish in first place with 21.8 seconds on the field, one started to get the exhilarating feeling that the camera would soon cut to Jessie Diggins doing what Jessie Diggins does best.
There was almost dramatic irony to it – we, the audience, just knew that there would be Diggins, free skating, looking ahead, and somehow increasing her tempo from 100% to beyond that. Then, she did it. Diggins crossed the finish line having not only erased her deficit, but gained a second on Pärmäkoski to finish in first place, 1.9 seconds ahead of the rest of the field.
In remarks to FasterSkier, Diggins said that her race today reflected renewed energy levels after her silver-medal winning 30 k at the Olympics, “Today was wonderful. After [sitting out the Holmenkollen race], I felt like I could go out and race the way I wanted to, having the energy to really attack the course.”
Diggins’ result though, only was a subset of the dramatic irony that prevaded the overarching race. Behind her, wearing the red leader’s bib (56, last starter in the field), fresh off of a win at the Holmenkollen 50 k, and in her individual last professional ski race, was Therese Johaug (NOR). The immensity of her character in the drama of the day was hard to understate. Johaug had already secured the Distance World Cup title for the season – her record-breaking fifth time winning that title (breaking a record jointly held by Justyna Kowalczyk and Dario Cologna). Coming into today, she was looking for her 100th World Cup win. She had been on every World Cup distance podium except one (a 4th place in a 10 k classic two years ago) since 2019.
What she might achieve in today’s 10 k was continuously foreshadowed throughout the course by Jonna Sundling, who wore bib 50. The Swede, on her home turf, broke through the jockeying at the top of the field when she came through the 1.5 k checkpoint 8.1 sec ahead of the field. When Johaug came through behind her in 2nd place, +4.0 sec, the little separation the pair had created seemed to be a turning point in the race. Johaug might do it. She could do it. She would probably do it. And then, she was doing it.
“It,” of course, was opening a commanding gap on the best skiers in the world. At 4.3 k, she had a 14.1 second gap on Sundling. At 7.7 k, the gap was 30.6 seconds. At 9.1 k, the gap was 35.4 seconds. Building steadily, Johaug had set the stage for a final, triumphant act.
First though, Jonna Sundling would add another scene. As she crested the hill going into the stadium the background was dotted by her country’s flags. The clock put her agonizingly close to Jessie Diggins. She did what she does better than any other skier at the moment – the Olympic gold medalist in the freestyle sprint unleashed a finish line burst that saw her come in 0.4 seconds ahead of Jessie Diggins in first place. The Swedish crowd let out a roar. It was the best that skiing as a spectator sport has to offer.
And then, it was surpassed by the best that skiing, period, had to offer. Therese Johaug finished in first place in a time of 22:34.4. To sum up her career, all you have to do is remove the last preposition.
Therese Johaug finished in first place.
Joahaug came across her last finish line with a yelp, and then quickly turned to her competitors still mulling in the finish area. In an instance, she had gone from racer to ambassador.
With the Norwegian at the back of the seeded group, this meant the podium would be Johaug on top, Sundling in second (+35.9), and Diggins third (+38.5). Rounding out the top-five, Pärmäkoski took fourth (+38.2), with Norway’s Heidi Weng in fifth (+42.7).
Johaug leaves a sport that’s transformed since she first raced a World Cup in 2007. For one, it is a sport in which Therese Johaug has raced. Her ability to win races so decisively, and consistently, will cast a long shadow. She finishes her final World Cup Distance title with 177 point advantage over 2nd place Frida Karlsson (SWE), who at the young age of 22 looks poised to chart a course that follows in Johaug’s footsteps. 3rd place in the classification will go to Krista Pärmäkoski (FIN).
It’s also a sport where its leading star is an American, joined by her teammates who are now capable of putting two skiers in the top ten (Diggins 3rd and Brennan 8th), and three in the top thirty (Kern 20th, +1:30.3). The depth of the Americans, in fact, was one of the great takeaways from today’s race. Caitlin Patterson just missed a top thirty finish, coming in 31st (+1:49.5). Rosie Frankowski finished 41st (+2:26.4).
Diggins, in particular, has proved skiing’s muse of fire, her grit and heroics adding to the depth of what ski racing purports to be the ideal for. Just today, she came into the race just one point ahead of Ebba Andersson (SWE) in the World Cup Overall. Between her and Andersson, the first finished today would secure World Cup runners-up. After Diggins podium finish today, adding to the mountain of evidence she’s accrued that belief and push are worth it, she secured that title. The overall champions’ title and crystal globe, meanwhile, will go to Natalia Nepryaeva (RUS).
Diggins said of her runners-up in the World Cup overall standings:
“It was really special to finish 2nd in the overall World Cup. I’m really proud. It represents a lot of hard work and consistently giving it everything I have everytime I race…
“I’m definitely still processing it. For me, this was a season where I came in with very concrete goals about my preparation physically and mentally for the Olympics. That was the big target. I’m really proud of how as a team (coaches and teammates) we handled that, and having World Cup wins and podiums was really just the icing on the cake.”
Full post-race audio clip from Jessie Diggins.
Johaug leaves a sport too, at the end of a weary and winding road of a season. Not only out-skiing the best skiers in the world, but navigating the inextricable circumstances that surround the sport in our times. COVID-19, for one, but also the rapidly shifting planes of geopolitics – and the interplay between nationalism, identity, and narrative – that have always been at the heart of all sports, and in particular (as we’ll be reminded in the team event tomorrow) skiing.
That state of flux in the meanings surrounding the sport of skiing will continue. More so now than ever. As will the stories of athletes that are, in their pursuit of dreams, caught in contested ideas that animate the world way beyond this sport.
But then again, we have seen that all before. And as today showed, when in skiing we see something familiar, it is drive, passion, and joy in their pure human forms, that make us turn our heads and pay attention.
That is, after all, the drama of skiing, and in Falun today, we saw one of its best examples.
The Canadian women also had a string of strong results today. Katharine Stewart-Jones finished 33rd (+1:57.7), Dahria Beatty finished 43rd (+2:36.7), and Jasmine Drolet finished 52nd (+3:08.2).
Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing and skiing while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.