Diggins Takes the Victory in Lillehammer Thriller

Ken RothDecember 2, 2022

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Jessie Diggins (USA) charges to the line for the narrow victory. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Today, the World Cup moved to one of the most picturesque locations in Nordic skiing—Lillehammer, Norway—where the women contested the 10-kilometer freestyle individual start event. The trees in the forests surrounding the race venue were covered with snow as racers were greeted by a beautiful morning in Lillehammer. It would be a home field advantage for the large Norwegian team, though the skier who drove herself to the finish line first was American, Jessie Diggins, who bested second place finisher, Katharina Hennig (GER) by 3.8 seconds. Heidi Weng (NOR) finished third.

Other American finishers were Julia Kern (25th), Sophia Laukli (29th), Alayna Sonnnesyn (34th), Lauren Jortberg (48th). Top Canadian was Katherine Stewart-Jones (26th).

Women’s 10 k Skate

Friday’s race consisted of three laps of a 3.3-kilometer course. Each lap employed several climbs which would help separate the field. Temperatures were comfortable, in the low 20s. Diggins started in an excellent strategic spot, beginning third from last; therefore, she would be able to know the split times of her competitors’ most of whom would be skiing in front of her. Diggins’ starting position—combined with her proficiency in the 10-kilometer skate—set the stage for high hopes for the American team.

Rosie Brennan (USA) last week in Ruka, Finland. (Photo: NordicFocus)

But as head coach Matt Whitcomb told Faster skier, Diggins late start spot wasn’t all an advantage.  “The downside is that you don’t get to warm up on the course as long, so she is limited by about 20-25 minutes less than what she’s accustomed to.”

Illness in the Camp

Unfortunately, the American field was thinned when Rosie Brennan and Novie McCabe could not start. Whitcomb informed Fasterskier that a cold has been slowly creeping through the U.S. camp, one or two people per week.

The illness led to an opening for Lauren Jortberg who skis for SMS T2, who had originally been selected as a discretionary pick.  But, due to the illnesses, she was able to race today.

As it turns out, according to Whitcomb, Diggins had also been affected by the same bug last week in Ruka, and was only getting her legs under her now.  She bounced back quickly, in the way that she can.

When contacted by FasterSkier, Brennan expressed her profound disappointment about not racing: “I caught a cold on Thursday and made the difficult decision to not race today.  As with many Olympic sports, we don’t have salaries so without sponsors, my income is solely made up of prize money and result bonuses from equipment sponsors. As such, missing a race you consider your biggest strength hits extra hard. I am heartbroken with the bad timing of this illness and hope it passes quickly. There were many stand out performances from our team today which I am doing my best to use to lift my spirits and confidence moving forward.”

The Race

Many of the pre-race favorites began in the middle of the start order, including Frida Karlsson (SWE), Heidi Weng (NOR), and Ebba Andersson (SWE), all of whom began within a few spots of each other.

Karlsson was the first of the pre-race favorites to reach the initial time check at 1.6-kilometers.  She established the early standard, leading by 3.9 seconds. But at this point, none of the other main competitors had reached the first-time check. When Weng reached it, she was over nine seconds behind Karlsson. Seconds later, though, the lead changed as Andersson posted a 2.2 second advantage.

Katharina Hennig (GER) was excited with her second place finish. (Photo: NordicFocus)

By the time Diggins reached the 1.6-kilometer mark, most of her main competition was already halfway through the race.  She came through the first time check in fourth, only 2.4 seconds out of the lead. Diggins looked strong and crisp as she powered through the initial timing mark. At this point, Andersson was still the skier to catch.

By the 5.6-kilometer mark, Karlsson had slowed significantly and was 13 seconds out of the lead, with her main rivals yet to reach that point of the race. Hennig crossed the time check, powering into the lead, while her teammate Victoria Carl (GER) stood in second. But Diggins had yet to reach the half-way point.

As the race went on, Karlsson continued to fade; by the 8.2-kilometer mark it was clear that she was not in her best form and would not be on the podium as she was over 16 seconds back.

Diggins again became the focus as she approached the 5.6-kilometer mark. When she crossed the timing point, she had narrowly taken the lead over Hennig by a scant 1.6 seconds. Diggins looked fantastic as she rounded the corner past the timing mark and tucked down the following hill.

Karlsson had tired near the finish, and sat 21.8 seconds behind the leader, Hennig, but many of the primary contenders were still out on course. Then, Heidi Weng finished and eclipsed Karlsson’s time putting Weng into second for the moment. Andersson finished one-tenth of a second behind Weng and was sitting third, but Diggins was still on course.

Things could not have been closer when Diggins crossed the 8.2-kilometer mark. As she used her V-2 to ferociously ski to the split, she fell to one second behind Hennig. With only 1.8-kilometers to go could Diggins surge past the German who had completed a very fast final split? The question was answered quickly when only seven-tenths of a kilometer later, Diggins had put 2.2 seconds into Hennig.

Hennig was sitting in the leader’s chair as Diggins began to approach the stadium. Diggins clearly had excellent form as she put the hammer down with the finish line in sight. She put her V-2 form into overdrive as Hennig nervously jumped out of the chair to see the finish. Diggins lunged across the line screaming as she knew that the race was hers. Diggins lay in the snow as Hennig approached to congratulate her. Diggins had won by 3.8 seconds, a display of grit and determination made all the more impressive by her having outpaced the Norwegians on their home turf.

Jessie Diggins (USA) hauling in the the winner’s hardware.  (Photo Credit: NordicFocus)
Diggins’ and Whitcomb Post-Race Comments

After the race Diggins commented on how fantastic her skis were and how an American contingent from Stratton had given her encouragement standing along one of the hills.  “There was a lot of extra love and energy out there. I just love skate races.”  Diggins continued that she realized how close the race was at the end and “I was pretending like I was anchoring the relay, cause I felt like I needed a little extra oomph.”  Diggins continued that she normally doesn’t like to hear timing splits, but started to listen to the splits after she realized the cheering from the sidelines meant she was having a great race.

Whitcomb added that it was a tricky day for skis. “There’s a lot of gliding at slow speeds. There’s a little bit of new snow mixed in with man made, which can provide a little bit of a gliding hazard. Our servicemen and women knocked it out of the park today.”

Whitcomb also noted that under the new protocols for course access, where there are two bibs reserved for women, that the U.S. is currently the only nation filling both bibs on the test track, “which has been a nice advantage for us.”

Diggins responded to Fasterskier that “It was such a cool atmosphere. Thanks to the wax team who worked really hard.  My skis were so awesome and gave me a lot of confidence and I felt like I was flying on those downhills.” Diggins continued that ” I went into the race with the plan to ski smooth and pace evenly, really working the transitions and corners. I wanted to maximize every little half of second that I could.” Diggins again expressed her appreciation for the many Americans who had traveled to the race. “I felt in Ruka that my body wasn’t in a great place yet, but today when I asked my body to go deep in the pain cave, it responded accordingly . . . Happy to have had a good day out there!”

Full Race Results here.

L-R, Katharina Hennig (GER), Jessie Diggins (USA) and Heidi Weng (NOR) share the women’s 10k podium in Lillehammer, Norway. (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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