Diggins First, Brennan Third in Davos 20 K Freestyle

Ken RothDecember 18, 2022

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An American celebration in Davos as Jessie Diggins and Rosie Brennan take first and third: l-r Ingvild Oestberg (NOR), Jessie Diggins (USA), Rosie Brennan (USA) (Photo NordicFocus)

Today the World Cup returned to Davos, Switzerland where the women competed in the 20 k Individual Start Freestyle.  As has been the case for the last several weeks, much of the critical pre-race story was about who wouldn’t be present.  Absent from the field was Swedish long-distance heavy hitter Frida Karlsson and teammate Ebba Andersson.  Missing from the Norwegian squad was Heidi Weng.

The U.S. hoped that Jessie Diggins could find her way back to the podium after yesterday’s second place sprint finish.  Diggins has the most wins of any active woman athlete in individual distance freestyle, having won 10.  She is also the most recent woman to have won consecutive individual World Cup distance events in the freestyle when she did so in January, 2021.  After yesterday’s sprint performance, Diggins moved into second place in the overall World Cup standings, behind Tiril Udnes Weng (NOR).

Taking first place was Jessie Diggins (USA), in second was Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg (NOR), and in third Rosie Brennan (USA). Other American finishers were Sophia Laukli (17th), Alayna Sonnesyn (26th), and Lauren Jortberg (39th). Novie McCabe was scheduled to race but did not start due to illness.

It was another standout day for the Canadians with Katherine Stewart-Jones finishing 11th, Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt 30th,  Dahria Beatty 32nd, and Liliane Gagnon 40th.

Jessie Diggins (USA) showing the hardware that comes with first place. (Photo: NordicFocus)

In a pre-race interview Diggins said that she thought Davos was a fun course and really challenging. “It’s sneaky hard,” she said, reiterating her love for individual start skate races.  “Just give me a trail in woods by myself and my skis and my brain . . . and I’m just excited to see how hard I can go.”

The skiers had another beautiful Davos day with full bright sun.

Rosie Brennan with the decisive lunge at the finish.  It was enough to get her third place by half a second. (Photo: NordicFocus)
20 K Individual Freestyle

Diggins went out hard at the start. At the 2.2-kilometer time-check she had the fastest time by a slim margin over Claudel Delphine (FRA).  Brennan started at a controlled tempo and was fifth after the first time check.

Diggins kept the hammer down for the first  seven kilometers, leading at every time check. But her lead was very small, ahead of Oestberg by only seven seconds. By the time the 7.2-kilometer mark was reached, Oestberg—who had a later start position than Diggins—had clawed her way into first, leading Diggins by just over a second. The see-saw between the two would continue for the rest of the day with Oestberg hanging onto a small lead for much of the race.

Tactically, it appeared that Oestberg might have an advantage being the last of the top three skiers to start, so she would be fed the others’ times along the way. But Diggins has told Fasterskier in the past that she’s not always interested in hearing split times; she just skis as hard as she can. She also values having warmups conclude close to her starting time.

U.S. coach Chris Grover confirmed with Fasterskier that, “[Diggins] likes to take an earlier draw in start position because she likes to not have the track closed for so long for warmup. She really doesn’t even think of splits out there. Jessie knew exactly how she wanted to ski that course and that was to not go quite as hard on all of the ups . . . you have to work all the transitions, all the corners, all of the downs.  The last 1.8 K are down . . . she had that strategy in mind for how she was going to ski it and she went out and skied it exactly the way she wanted to.”

Jessie Diggins (USA) found another gear in the final 1.8 k to finish first. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Grover continued that it was a different approach for Brennan. He said, “She’s prioritizing climbing on the uphills. Two opposite strategies and they both worked out pretty well for them.”

Twenty kilometers is still a relatively new distance for the women, so proper pacing would be critical.  Grover indicated that the change to 20 k hasn’t been much of an issue. “It seems like it hasn’t been that hard of a transition,” Grover said. “They looked like they were at a high pace the whole time, the same kind of strategies they employed on this course in 10-K. We did a little bit of feeding, which we wouldn’t have done in a 10-kilometer event. Otherwise, it wasn’t so different.”

“I really wanted to pace it like red-line pacing…go as hard as I could right before I felt like I was going to blow up, and then hold it there.”                                                  Jessie Diggins

Diggins continued: “My strengths are the second half of the lap with all of these working sections, trying to find the extra seconds here and there,” she said. “We had some really awesome skis, and awesome energy from the fans.”

Regarding pacing for today’s race, Brennan told Fasterskier that: “I have never done a 20k interval start which was probably true for the whole field today. That made it really tricky to know the pace or really what to expect. I love the course here and love skiing at altitude so I had some confidence that I could find a steady pace and hold it.”  

Jessie Diggins (USA) enjoying her first place hardware in Davos.  The full-sized sled goes to the winner.  (Photo: NordicFocus).

With only five kilometers to go, the race for first was almost a dead heat.  Oestberg had a scant three second lead over Diggins. Meanwhile, the fight for third was boiling down to Brennan and Tiril Udnes Weng (NOR). At the 15 kilometer mark, Weng held a one second lead over Brennan. Both those racers were over 13 seconds off first place.

As the race wound down, the momentum for first place seemed to favor Oestberg as she continuously displaced Diggins from the lead with each time check she passed. But her lead was small enough that Diggins remained in the hunt for first place.

With two kilometers to go the competition had boiled down to two distinct races: Oestberg and Diggins battling for first, and Brennan and T. Weng battling for second. The tension continued to mount as Oestberg approached the final time-check at 18.2-kilometers. Oestberg had moved past Diggins at every time split since the 7.2-kilometer mark, and that trend continued at the last time check with Oestberg going into first place, but by only 2.9 seconds. Brennan and T. Weng were even closer with less than two seconds separating them with Brennan holding the lead.

With the race close—but momentum still in Oestberg’s favor—one couldn’t help but have the feeling that things would go Oestberg’s way.

Rosie Brennan (USA) showing the grit needed to earn a spot on the podium. (Photo: NordicFocus)

But as ski fans have seen so many times over the years, Diggins always has that little extra bit to put forth at the finish. Over the last 1.8-kilometers, Diggins reached for her well-known extra gear and ended up skiing the final stretch in 3:33.7. Oestberg skied the same stretch in 3:42.1. The 7.4 second advantage over the final 1.8-kilometers was enough to give Diggins the win by 5.5 seconds, dropping Oestberg to second.

“I knew it was tight, I knew it was exciting. I was just trying to ski my own race and ski as smart, as powerful, and as smooth as I could.  My mental mantra was find the glide. Individual starts are my favorite way to race, it’s just you and your head out there.”                                                     Jessie Diggins

Diggins commented that she was so focused over the final downhill that she didn’t blink and her contact lens froze which added to the normal post finish line stress. “My eyes were ok, they just needed some time to warm up . . . no lasting damage; it was just quite painful and a little bit scary.”

T. Weng was nibbling away at Brennan’s lead by tenths of a second. Weng skied the final 2.8-kilometers faster than Brennan, but Brennan had established a three second lead at the 17.2 mark. It would be just enough to hold off T. Weng who finished half a second behind Brennan. Brennan told Fasterskier that, ” I had really good skis today and did all I could to push the downhill on the last lap which just barely snuck me on the podium.” Brennan said of the day’s events that, “Today was a great day for USA!!! I was pleased to turn around a disappointing day yesterday into a podium today. It was a tight race the whole way and I am thrilled to have just nipped the podium spot. It was great to share the podium with Diggs and is a great way to close out period 1 racing. Now it’s all eyes on the Tour!”

A 20 kilometer race had turned into a game of inches with Diggins and Brennan skiing perfectly to claim the podium.  It was a glorious day in what turned out to be a fantastic weekend for team U.S.A. After the dust had settled from the day’s racing, Diggins would find herself firmly in second place in the overall World Cup points standings. Tiril Udnes Weng holds first place with 872 points. Diggins is in second with 738, and Krista Parmakoski (FIN) is in third with 625.

The World Cup takes a weekend off and picks up December 31st in Val Mustair, Switzerland for the start of the Tour de Ski with the freestyle sprints leading off.

Complete Results

Katherine Stewart-Jones (CAN) charging to 11th place for Canada (Photo: NordicFocus)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ken Roth

Ken lives in Southeastern Michigan. He's an avid outdoor sport enthusiast. He's an attorney, former Mayor of Northville, Michigan, and former bowling center owner. He's spent much of the last 35 years trying to chase down his wife on classic skis; to no avail.

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