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While it was perhaps not the final event originally planned for the season, today’s 4 x 5-kilometer freestyle mixed relay in Falun, Sweden shaped up to be quite a way to go out. Particularly for Team USA, who broke away in the final lap to take the win in 42:01.8.
With Rosie Brennan scrambling to tag Zak Ketterson for the second leg, Scott Patterson skating third, and Jessie Diggins anchor, it was a team composed of four skiers who had all raced into the top-15 in yesterday’s 10/15 k skate, three within the top-eight. Perhaps the only team more loaded was Norway 1, which featured Heidi Weng, Hans Christer Holund, Didrik Tønseth, and Therese Johaug, all of whom placed in the top-five yesterday, including both of the day’s winners in the final two relay spots. Also a force, Finland I consisted of three Olympic medalists, one of whom is the 2022 men’s World Cup distance champion with the lineup: Kerttu Niskanen, Perttu Hyvarinen, Iivo Niskanen, and Krista Pärmäkoski.
Each nation was allowed two teams, allowing the US to start a second lineup of Julia Kern, Logan Hanneman, Adam Martin, and Caitlin Patterson. Canada raced one team, which included Katherine Stewart-Jones, Antoine Cyr, Philippe Boucher, and Jasmine Drolet, racing in that order.
New to the World Cup, the mixed relay is modeled after the biathlon competition format, which debuted in 2005. It had originally been slotted onto the calendar for the Canmore World Cup events in March 2020, which were canceled as COVID-19 began to spread around the globe. It had been tested on the tracks in Falun during the 2021 Swedish senior national championships, with local club leader Johan Eriksson saying afterward, “Team cohesion was strengthened when ladies and gentlemen fought against the same goal line. At the same time, the entertainment was great with reversals in the result lists and tactical moves in team line-ups.”
The entertainment value was certainly high today, particularly for American ski fans. Racing a distance now only seen in relays, it would be a painful blend of sprinting and distance. And the Americans would be lucky to have a woman anchoring the team who has previously been described as the “Queen of the 5 k skate”.
As expected, the pace was high from the start, as the Star Wars theme blared through the stadium loud-speakers. Up for the task at hand, Brennan went toe-to-toe with the other women at the front through two 2.5 k laps. Later describing the event as “fast and furious”, Brennan kept USA I within the lead group, Kern duking it out on USA II alongside through the first lap.
“I think our goal today was to stay out of trouble and stay in the pack, and then let Diggy do her thing that she does best,” Rosie told FIS post-race with a laugh. “And that worked out really well.”
Brennan handed off to Ketterson at the first exchange, in line with Germany I, Norway I, and Sweden I, Finland I just behind.
Though new to the World Cup this season, Team Birkie’s Ketterson has consistently shown his range. Domestically, he won three SuperTour sprints, and stood on the podium in four distance races, one of which was also a win. He chiseled away at the World Cup puzzle, finishing just outside the top-30 during the Tour de Ski, and returning following the Olympic break to place 41st in Lahti’s distance classic race and at the 50 k classic at Holmenkollen. Smashing a 15th place finish in yesterday’s 15 k free, Falun has been a breakthrough weekend.
Though 5 k is not a distance men traditionally race on the World Cup, Ketterson emailed post-race that the event felt familiar and reminiscent of his early days in the sport.
“I am a huge fan of the 5 k race distance as I spent four years in Minnesota high school races doing that distance multiple times a week in the winter. Today brought me back to those days! It was super chaotic pack skiing but I felt really strong the whole time and did my best to keep up with the leaders. Honestly, when Jessie is your anchor, you don’t really have to worry too much about the rest!”
On lightning fast tracks with matching skis, Ketterson skied smoothly within the large lead group, keeping USA I within contact of the leaders, while Sjur Røthe tried to crack open pack for Norway II. Tagging Patterson roughly four seconds back, USA I sat in 10th, alongside Canada, at the second exchange. USA II tagged in 14th, +34 seconds back.
Still a large and dense group of front runners, Patterson worked at the back of the lead group to minimize further time losses, keeping his team within reach of the podium. With both Norwegian teams at the front in the second lap, Patterson whittled down the American’s time back, tagging Diggins 2.2 seconds behind the leaders to “do her thing” over two 2.5 k laps. Canada had lost contact with the front group, sitting in 11th (+17.9), while USA II tagged following a gap in 15th (+1:14.5).
“My goal was to hang on with the pack early and get in the groove, then try to match accelerations later,” Patterson wrote after the race. “I knew I wasn’t going to be the one with super accelerations but could sprint the whole way. During the race I was thinking ‘Just hold on’, so Jessie could work her magic relay anchoring skills. There were a few moments where some gaps formed but I barely managed to cling on.”
Diggins quickly got to work. Halfway through the first lap, it was Diggins marking Johaug at the front, with Krista Pärmäkoski for Finland I and Victoria Carl for Germany I tucked into their wake. Recall that Carl had anchored the German relay team for an Olympic silver medal in Zhangjiakou just a few weeks ago.
Skis ripping on the downhill, Diggins moved to the front to lap through the stadium 1.4 seconds ahead of Finland I and Norway I, Frida Karlsson for Sweden I challenging Germany’s Carl just behind.
Diggins worked patiently up the climb, once more tucking behind the rapid fire tempo of Johaug on the uphill, and tucking calmly into the draft of the Norwegian and Finn heading into the descent. Diggins hit the second climb hard as the three women hop-skated up and over. Among the best descenders on the World Cup, Diggins skis were only fueling the fire, allowing her to maintain her lead in the rolling last kilometer and into the stadium which erupted with noise from the packed sidelines.
Rounding the final bend with a clear shot to victory, Diggins took a few tuck skate pushes before powering in V2 across the line with a fist pump and loud cheer, and maybe an expletive, before collapsing onto all fours surrounded by her ecstatic teammates.
Outsprinting the World Cup distance champion, Pärmäkoski edged out Johaug to bring Finland I to the line in second (+3.8), leaving Norway I just 0.5 seconds behind in third. Having strung out over the last lap, Sweden I took fourth (+9.1), with Germany I fifth following another gap (+16.2).
Describing the experience of winning the mixed relay on the final day of World Cup racing, Diggins told FIS with a laugh, “[It] feels like champagne getting sprayed on you.”
Surrounded by her teammates, she continued, “That was so, so fun. We really pulled together as a team. We live together as a team for four months on the road, so it’s pretty cool to get to end the season racing for each other. I’m so proud of these guys, so I was feeling pretty inspired.”
Later sharing her strategy in a post-race audio clip as the remainder of the team packed their bags to begin travel home tomorrow, Diggins discussed her strategy as anchor, adding how the rockets under her feet allowed the race to unfold somewhat differently than she anticipated.
“I knew that those downhill working corners were one of my strengths, so I knew that if I got to the top of that big sprint climb first, then I could ski all the other downhills how I want and have a good shot at setting up a finishing sprint. As it turned out, we had such great skis that I didn’t need that finishing sprint, but it was so fun to go ski that as hard as I could. Again, I’m just so proud of the team. It was so special and fun to share that with everyone, and I can’t think of a more perfect way to end a really awesome year.”
Full post-race audio clip from Jessie Diggins:
“What a way to close out the World Cup season!!!!!” Brennan emphasized in an email. “After Scott and Zak had great days yesterday, I felt that we definitely had a chance, but I was not expecting a victory like that! It was fast and tactical racing out there and in the scramble leg, I wanted to stay near the front of the pack and stay out of trouble. I found myself further back in the pack than I wanted on the 2nd lap, but also knew a fall or broken pole would cost us so I tried to be patient, calm and tag off in the pack. Zak, Scott and I had the same strategy and Scott made a great move to get ahead of a split in the pack to tag Jessie in a great place. Jessie skied an insane leg and I feel lucky to have her as a teammate!”
Echoing her sentiments to conclude his post-race email from the road, Patterson added, “It’s really cool to win the last World Cup and especially awesome to be part of the team. The mixed gender event was extra special as the guys were finally able to tap into the relay energy the women have cultivated over many years.”
Losing contact over the third and fourth legs, consequently racing alone, Canada ended the day in 12th (+1:45.2), while USA II pushed alongside Finland II through its final lap. Edged out in the final sprint, Katri Lylynpera (FIN) snuck her boot over the line ahead of Caitlin Patterson’s, leaving USA II in 14th (+2:10.9).
Celebrations fed by cheering crowds, energy was high throughout the stadium. Regardless of finish order, acts of camaraderie and sportsmanship could be seen and heard as cameras meandered through the groups of athletes waiting for their relay teammates. We could hear a Frenchman congratulate Norway’s Tønseth on ending his season with an individual win, Ketterson and Kern anxiously trying to predict what might happen in the American’s final legs, along with a host of supportive cheers as teammates and coaches egged on the racers.
Awaiting the Swiss anchor Laurien Van der Graaff was a princess tiara, teammates in golden unicorn horns, and a large banner that read “Danke Laurien”, in celebration of her retirement. The 34-year-old has long been a presence on the World Cup, collecting a slew of podiums and a World Championship team sprint silver medal along the way.
With revelry and thrill in the air, only the mixed team sprint remained on deck as the 2021/22 World Cup season drew to a close in Falun. The American program did not enter the team sprint competition, and will next compete as a team at the Whistler Olympic Park in British Columbia March 20th – 27th. The event will serve as both the Canadian National Championship and SuperTour Finals.
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