*Update: This article previously stated that Jessie Diggins was the first American woman to reach a podium at the Holmenkollen. Diggins is actually the first American woman to reach the Holmenkollen podium in the 30 k distance, second woman to podium at a Holmenkollen in history. In 1980, American Allison Owen reached the podium in the 10 k distance.
OSLO, Norway — Some pointed to the broadcast screen in disbelief. Others began waving their Norwegian flags with revitalized vigor. Twenty minutes earlier, Norway’s Marit Bjørgen appeared to be out of the running for another win in the women’s 30-kilometer mass start at Holmenkollen.
She had lost nine seconds to the leaders by the 11 k mark and another 17.9 seconds had dissipated between her and the the leaders as they passed 13.3 k. A little over the halfway point, at 16.3 k, the 37-year-old Bjørgen was down 36 seconds.
For any spectator familiar with Bjørgen’s race tactics, she does not favor come-from-behind style skiing. In this year’s Olympic 30 k classic mass start, she pulled away from the field in the first 8 k and went on to claim gold by a close to a two-minute gap.
Exactly one year ago, in the 2017 Holmenkollen 30 k classic, she had put 33 seconds into the field by 8 k, tripling that in the following 10 k, before crossing the finish line more than two minutes ahead of the rest of the field. If racing to win, Bjørgen usually starts by burying the competition.
So when Sunday’s top three — Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, Norway’s Ragnhild Haga and American Jessie Diggins — broke free, the predictions for the podium went with them.
“I thought I was fighting for the fourth place,” Bjørgen said at a post-race press conference.
With Bjørgen out of the driver’s seat, the attention from the teleprompter and crowd turned to Diggins, Kalla and Haga. For the most part, the three skied in a line, with Kalla and Diggins exchanging leads.
Still anytime the Swede pulled at the front, her effort appeared to be a byproduct of Diggins. Every uphill churn from the Swede seemed like an attempt to stave off the American. Diggins continually reinstated herself ahead of Kalla in first: stars and stripes unmistakably spearheading the way.
On a course that is fabled for Norway, in a sport that is historically Scandinavian, the U.S. skier repeatedly put the iconic suits of Sweden and Norway behind her. But this seemed to be more than just the dogged-skiing characteristic of Diggins’s race style. The 26-year-old Minnesota native was not just being gutsy. She was making a point.
“I think there has been this myth that Americans, OK, maybe they can win short distances, and maybe Jessie can win a 5 k but there is no way she can hang in a 30 k,” Diggins told FasterSkier during an in-person interview after. “I was setting out to debunk some myths today.”
For the first 8 k, Diggins charged the field of 54 skiers. Along with Kalla, she spurred the lead group’s gap that formed at the 13 k mark. In another 5 k from there, she had broken free of Bjørgen. Without looking back, Diggins was chasing down a Holmenkollen master head on.
“Maybe it wasn’t smart to be leading so much, but I was thinking this is my only shot and so I got to go for it,” Diggins said. “It was an incredible feeling to be leading the Holmenkollen … for me, trying to be competitive in every race that I enter has been a goal for a long time. I don’t want to be a specialist, I want to be a medal threat in every race that I do.”
As Diggins continued to pose a threat in the front, danger lurked behind. Bjørgen cut through the course, the dreaded dorsal fin gradually on the rise.
At 18.3 k, the gap from Bjørgen to the leaders was 32 seconds. In two kilometers, that was reduced to 26 seconds. Another 2 k and Bjørgen was four seconds closer. Over the course of 5 k, Bjørgen had cut her time back from the leaders in half; another 5 k still remained and 15 seconds separated her from the top three.
A wave of surprise and simultaneous excitement rolled over the spectators. Six seconds separated her from the lead group at 27 k. The Norwegian pushed closer and closer, and with 1.5 k left in the race, she was back in contact with the front pack.
“It was amazing that I did it,” Bjørgen said. “I haven’t thought it was possible … but when we passed the stadium, the last time, before we go off Gratishaugen … I thought … I wonder if they want to change skis and they didn’t.
At 13.3 k Bjørgen stopped to switch skis, as did her Norwegian teammate Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen. Kalla, Diggins and Haga did not. After the top three bypassed the ski exchange, one thing was on the Bjørgen’s mind.
“I thought I had to push hard,” Bjørgen said.
Fueled by the energy of her home crowd, Bjørgen went on to pass Haga, Diggins and Kalla in the final kilometer. Alone, she raced toward the final stretch and crossed the finish line first in a time of 1:18:12.4 hours, earning her seventh Holmenkollen title in historic fashion. She now also holds the record for most Holmenkollen victories of any woman.
“I haven’t won a competition like this, so it’s all so very special,” Bjørgen said. “To win at Hollmenkollen … for sure it’s the biggest you can do after the World [Championships] and the Olympics.”
Crossing 3.6 seconds behind Bjørgen was Diggins in second place. She became the first American woman to reach the podium at Holmenkollen in the 30 k distance. 1980, American Allison Owen reached the podium in the Holmenkollen, which was raced as a 10 k.
“I didn’t know who it was [chasing the top three] I just heard that the gap was shrinking,” Diggins said. “I felt I was just sprinting the last 4 k. That was my only shot. We didn’t change skis which maybe was a mistake, but also you make the best call that you can at the time.”
While she held off Haga and Kalla, those two battled for third. Haga outlunged Kalla by a just one-tenth of a second for the final spot on the podium (+4.3).
“I am very happy with my sprint, my finish against Charlotte,” Haga said. “I regretted that we didn’t switch skis when I heard that Marit caught many seconds there, but suddenly she just came up and, yeah, she is always there when it matters. So Marit is amazing today as well.”
Rounding out the women’s top 10 was Kalla in fourth (+4.4), Jacobsen in fifth (+11.6), Ingvild Flugstad Østberg in sixth (+1:39.5), Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski in seventh (+1:51.7), Germany’s Stefanie Böhler in eighth (+2:10.2), Austria’s Teresa Stadlober in ninth (+2:11.6) and Sweden’s Ebba Andersson in 10th (+2:11.9).
U.S. skier Sadie Bjornsen finished 11.5 seconds outside the top 10 in 12th (+2:23.4) in what she described as her “best Holmenkollen finish.”
“I was really looking forward to today. I had not too many awesome feelings lately,” Bjornsen told FasterSkier after. “I was just looking forward to the simplicity of a skate race. I had a ton of fun out there.”
Following Bjornsen, U.S. skier Kikkan Randall placed 19th (+3:21.9) in what will be her final Holmenkollen race. The first time Randall raced at Holmenkollen was in 2007. As she reflected on her years of racing there, the 35-year-old Olympic gold medalist remained humble of the time she had spent on the historically challenging trail.
“This is probably one of the coolest places to race, with the atmosphere and the spectators,” Randall said. “It was definitely hard, but I really enjoyed it … there’s something that’s hard to put into words about pushing yourself over the course of an hour and twenty minutes. It just kind of feels good to finish a little bit empty.”
After a photo finish with French skier, Anouk Faivre-Picon, American Caitlin Patterson finished 28th (+4:13.1), just behind Faivre-Picon in 27th. Sunday’s race was Patterson’s second Holmenkollen freestyle race, and the 27-year-old Craftsbury Green Racing Project member was happy to spend the first two-thirds of it with a large group of racers that included Randall.
“This one was way better because I was actually in it. That other year I was just blown out,” Patterson said, referring to her previous Holmenkollen skate race, in 2015, when she placed 53rd. In last year’s Holmenkollen 30 k classic, she finished 36th.
“Today my goal was to stay more relaxed and as much as I wanted to stay with the lead pack, but not burn all the matches right at the start,” Patterson added.
“I switched my skis the last lap, with the snow starting to come down … and for better or worse, it did mean I lost the pack,” she continued. “But then I was able to ski with Anouk for the last lap and we reeled in that Norwegian and a Russian. … I always feel a lot better about races if I finish strong, whatever the place is.”
Also for the U.S., Rosie Frankowski, of Alaska Pacific University, finished in 31st (+4:45.4), 28.3 seconds outside the top 30.
Canada’s Cendrine Browne finished 36th (+6:16.1) followed by Emily Nishikawa in 44th (+7:36.1) and Dahria Beatty in 49th (+9:45.1).
For the U.S., Liz Stephen finished 51st (+10:01.7) and Kaitlynn Miller 53rd (+16:05.0).
Along with Randall, Stephen also completed her final Holmenkollen on Sunday. Stephen had her parents cheering her on after they made the trek to Norway to watch her race in person. Her closing words on her final time around the historic course were full of emotion, both happy and sad.
“I think this is actually the first race that I have ever looked at Matt [Whitcomb] in the eye during the race and thanked him for the feed and kept going,” Stephen, 31, said. “It’s bittersweet. It’s certainly not the way I was hoping to end it but … it was really special watching Noah [Hoffman] hug his dad yesterday.
“I mean this sport has been our life and it is hard to leave, but it is time,” she added, referring to her retirement at the end of the season. “And I am really lucky to have had such a good run with it. And to have an amazing team to let go forward.”
— Harald Zimmer, Ian Tovell and Andrea Pontyondy-Smith contributed