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Today marked the end: at the completion of today’s women’s 20 kilometer Classic mass start in Lahti, Finland, all unanswered questions would be resolved. There would not be any waiting until next week, any re-group and re-deploy, any revised strategies. It was now, or never for the 2022-2023 season. Hanging in the balance would be the standings in the overall World Cup Crystal Globe chase, and the Distance Crystal Globe.
First place for the overall Crystal Globe was pre-determined. Tiril Udnes Weng (NOR) led Jessie Diggins (USA) by 154 points. With a maximum of 130 points going to the winner (assuming the winner takes all of the bonus points), Weng’s lead was mathematically unbeatable. However, overall standings placements were still up for grabs. Diggins led classic skiing standout Kerttu Niskanen (FIN) by 99 points, a sizeable but not insurmountable cushion given Niskanen’s classic abilities. Rosie Brennan (USA) sat in fourth place with a 108 point lead over Nadine Faehndrich (SUI). If Diggins and Brennan could hold their positions, it would put two Americans in the top five of the overall standings, potentially an historic finish for American skiing.
Also at stake was the much closer chase for the distance Crystal Globe. Niskanen led with a 22 point advantage over Diggins, who would definitely be considered the underdog in a head to head classic skiing battle. But today’s race used the mass start format which would give Diggins help in staying with the field. Niskanen has never won an individual race on home soil; at 34 years of age, time is running out. Brennan was in fourth place for this Crystal Globe as well, a mere four points ahead of perennial favorite Heidi Weng (NOR), and only 26 points ahead of Anne Kjersti Kalvaa (NOR). The possibilities were almost too numerous to calculate.
At the end of the road of World Cup racing for the season, Anne Kjersti Kalvaa took home the win for Norway. Jonna Sundling (SWE) was second, and Katharina Hennig finished third.
For the Americans, Jessie Diggins finished 22nd, 1:15 seconds out of the lead. Rosie Brennan was right behind her in 23rd. Other American finishers were Novie McCabe 25th, Hailey Swirbul 26th, Julia Kern 38th, and 17 year old Sammy Smith 48th.
For the Canadians, Katherine Stewart-Jones was the only finisher taking 37th. Liliane Gagnon did not finish.
The overall world cup Crystal Globe positions remained largely unchanged with Diggins remaining in second and Brennan remaining fourth. It was an unprecedented finish with two Americans in the top five of the overall standings and a landmark achievement which would lift the entire team.
The hunt for the distance Crystal Globe did not go quite as well. Diggins was able to hold onto her second place position, but lost ground to Niskanen who was the overall winner. But Brennan dropped down to sixth place eclipsed by Kalvaa and Heidi Weng. Still, a remarkably strong finish for the American squad.
The Women’s 20 Kilometer Mass Start
Not surprisingly, Niskanen pushed the pace early. For the first couple of kilometers, she was in a group with Kalvaa, Frida Karlsson (SWE) and T. Weng. Five kilometers into the race, there was still a large pack at the front which contained all top contenders. Diggins and Brennan were still in the lead group, but by the 7.5 kilometer mark, where the first bonus points were awarded, the balance changed. Niskanen revealed her strategy of going for the bonus points, and crossed the bonus line first, receiving 15 points and widening her lead for the distance Crystal Globe over Diggins. Heidi Weng crossed the bonus line sixth giving her five bonus points. Brennan crossed the bonus line 13th and Diggins 14th, both just missing bonus points. But the damage was done. Diggins was losing her opportunity to keep pace with Niskanen and Heidi Weng had surged past Brennan in the distance standings.
The next bonus point line came at the 12.5 kilometer mark. Diggins was still in the hunt a mere seven seconds off the lead as skiers passed the 11 kilometer mark. Brennan was now 14 seconds from the front of the race. As the skiers approached the bonus line, Niskanen again pushed to the front of a pack which contained Ebba Andersson (SWE), Katharina Hennig (GER), Krista Parmakoski (FIN), and Karlsson. Niskanen revisited her strategy from the previous bonus line and received 15 bonus points putting her lead for the Distance Globe out of reach. Heidi Weng took one point to extend her advantage over Brennan. Once again the Americans were shut out for the all important bonus points.
While the race for the overall distance standings was being clarified by bonus points, the contest for winning the race was far from over. After 15 kilometers, a group of seven skiers dominated the front with Niskanen, Kalvaa, Andersson, Jonna Sundling (SWE), Hennig, Karlsson and Parmakoski all within seconds of each other. Diggins and Brennan had now fallen off the lead and were 30 and 38 seconds back respectively. Barring a miracle, all hope was lost for Diggins’ chances of taking the distance globe. Heidi Weng was still holding her lead over Brennan as well.
The lead pack continued with Parmakoski and Heidi Weng struggling to keep pace, as Andersson had moved to the front trying to break up the field. Andersson had picked up a yellow card earlier in the race and would have to be careful not to be disqualified with another violation.
As the finish approached, the pack was still together with Andersson going to the front trying to take away the advantage Sundling would have in a sprint finish and setting up a dazzling drag race to the finish line. But, it was Kalvaa who was able to find the speed at the end with clearly faster skis than the field, surging to the front to hold off Sundling’s late charge and win by less than a second. Hennig finished just behind Sundling in a three way photo finish with Andersson coming in fourth. Niskanen ended up fifth and would have to wait in her pursuit to win at home.
For Kalvaa it was her first world cup win. After the race she commented about how fast her skis were and admitted that the fatigue of the season had taken its toll.
It was a tricky day for waxing; clearly the Norwegians had hit the mark. U.S. coach Chris Grover commented on the difficulties of finding the right kick wax. “Some of the athletes today had decent skis,” he said. “Some were too slick, some were slow, it was kind of all over the map. It glazed [the tracks] as the race went on and you had to be kind of lucky.” Team USA knew that the deck was stacked against Diggins’ chances of claiming the distance championship. Grover said that “[Niskanen’s] won the last few Classic races…Jessie and Jason [Cork] approached the day that it would be a very tall order to overtake Kerttu, and unfortunately, Jessies’ skis just weren’t fast enough. We knew it would be a bit of a long shot.”
When Diggins and Brennan reached the finish they were over a minute back in 22nd and 23rd respectively. It was a valiant effort, but they just couldn’t keep pace with the leaders.
It was an exciting way to end the season. But it was also filled with a tinge of disappointment for the Americans. Diggins had come painfully close to capturing the distance Globe, but ultimately finished second to Niskanen, which was still cause for celebration. Brennan dropped to sixth overall in the distance Globe chase.
Women’s 20 kilometer Mass Start RESULTS
Women’s Overall World Cup STANDINGS
Women’s Distance World Cup STANDINGS