LAHTI, Finland — Three: that’s the magic number. On a historic night in Lahti on Thursday, three of the four U.S. women entered in the 2017 Nordic World Championships 1.4-kilometer freestyle sprint advanced from their quarterfinals to the semifinals and eventually, the final.
Toeing the start line for the American triad was the U.S. Ski Team’s (USST) Kikkan Randall, Jessie Diggins and Sophie Caldwell. Filling the final three spots were two Swedes — Hannah Falk and Ida Ingemarsdotter — as well as Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla.
Not making the cut was the week’s sprint favorite, Stina Nilsson. The young Swedish superstar had crashed while cornering the final turn in her semifinal, taking out Russia’s Natalia Matveeva and earning herself a yellow card and relegation to last in the heat. Randall and Caldwell, who were both in Nilsson’s semi, maneuvered around the spill to advance in second and third, respectively.
With no Nilsson, Sweden put its faith in Ingemarsdotter and Falk, while the U.S. comprised half of the field in the women’s final.
“That’s for sure the funnest final I have ever been a part of,” Randall said during a post-race press conference. “Before we went to the start we did a little team cheer … we had such good energy between the three of us.”
Feeding off each other’s energy as they started the race, the Americans remained grouped together through the first climb toward the back of the pack. Meanwhile, Falla found herself skiing in the front by the time the finalists crested the top of the first hill.
“That’s my favorite tactic I am always using. If I am doubting or don’t know what to do, I take the lead and hope for the best,” Falla said during the press conference.
The Norwegian kept it that way for the remainder race, distancing herself by close to 10 meters by the top of the second climb. With one final descent to go, she had tightened her hold on the World Championships freestyle sprint title.
Leading the charge from behind was Ingemarsdotter. Diggins pressed closely behind to the Swede’s right, Randall to the left. Breathing down their necks were Caldwell and Falk.
By the bottom of the descent, Diggins had moved around the Swedish skier. Randall continued press from behind, but so, too, did Falk.
In the final 100 meters, Falla staved off any attempts from Diggins, crossing first in a time of 3:02.34 minutes for the gold medal. Just 1.66 seconds back, Diggins claimed silver — her third World Championships medal and second individual silver.
Though she placed second in last year’s Lahti World Cup freestyle sprint, Diggins admitted that the 2017 event was not where she had planned to put her focus for the week.
“I was … targeting some other races this week,” the 25-year-old Diggins said during the press conference, noting that she has been feeling strong this year on the World Cup. She’s already won two individual races this season and placed second in the skiathlon Obsterdorf, Germany. At the start of Thursday’s sprint, she recalled thinking, ” ‘Why not? This could be my day.’ ”
The Minnesota native proved it was, with her second-place finish tying her for the most champs medals won by a U.S. woman. The other woman to have three? After capturing third place (+3.76) on Thursday, that would be Randall.
The U.S. Ski Team veteran and three-time Sprint World Cup winner, now has two individual World Championships medals, as well: a bronze on Thursday, a silver from the 2009 sprint in Liberec, and her 2013 freestyle team-sprint gold, which she earned with Diggins in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
“It was a slow start to the season, and it took a lot of patience,” Randall said of some of her earlier-season performances and whether those had her worried as she entered World Championships. “But the shape was building and building, and I hoped to find the best shape here, and it worked!”
This year’s world medal, however, is a bit different for the 34-year-old Alaskan. It’s one she’s won as a mom.
“I think it’s very encouraging to know that it’s only been 10 months [since I had a baby], and I have been able to come back to top form,” Randall said. “I was able to train well through my pregnancy, and come back to training pretty soon after the birth. So it’s great to see everything come together here.”
Sweden was shut out of the medals; Falk placed fourth (+3.91) and Ingemarsdotter finished fifth (+4.42).
Caldwell once again performed on the big stage. In front of a packed Lahti Ski Stadium and a global television audience, the 26-year-old Vermonter appeared unfazed. In fact she’s been in this spot before — she placed sixth at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in the skate sprint. Déjà vu all over again? Not exactly. But in Sochi, the sprint final did feature two athletes Caldwell faced in Lahti: Falla and Ingemarsdotter. And if familiarity breeds comfort, racing against teammates Diggins and Randall positioned her against known athletes, a book she’s read hundreds of times either in practice or in competition.
Caldwell, teammates with Diggins at the Stratton Mountain School in Vermont, qualified 13th. And her first pass through the media zone after placing second in her quarterfinal was the look of hyper-focus.
By the time she moved onto the final as a lucky loser — after deftly angling around Nilsson and Matveeva — a grin broke through.
Caldwell placed sixth in the final, 5.37 seconds in back of Falla after qualifying 13th, for her best result in her third World Championships.
“Today was an incredible day for the team. I don’t know if we ever had three people in the final,” Caldwell said. “And to have Jessie and Kikkan on the podium is amazing.”
Caldwell acknowledged the personal significance of the evening’s sprint. “It was a great day for me, this is the first final I made this year,” she said. “And I had strong feelings throughout the day. I feel like I felt better as the day went on, with the exception of the final where my legs got a little tired.”
Of the four U.S. women that started Thursday’s sprint, all four qualified for the heats. Ida Sargent made the top 30 in 27th, behind her teammates Randall (10th), Caldwell (13th), and Diggins (19th). Sargent went on to finish fifth in her quarterfinal (4.6 seconds behind Matveeva, who won that heat) for 24th overall.
“I am just really proud of the athletes,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said. “All of the athletes that were competing today, all of the athletes on the U.S. program that were not competing today that were cheering from in front of the television this evening. … I am really proud of the team that we have collected here, in terms of the service team, and coaching team, medical and support team … and everyobdy that is surrounding that for USA.”
“For us this was definitely a target event,” he explained.
In five consecutive visits to Lahti, the U.S. has reached the podium in every World Cup skate sprint. Andy Newell started the trend back in 2008, but Randall got the ball rolling for the women’s program in 2013 and 2014, winning the skate sprint there both years. Also in 2014, Caldwell reached the podium for the first time in third place. In 2015, Randall scored another Lahti podium in third (while Diggins was just off it in fourth), and last season, Diggins placed second.
So you can say freestyle sprint, especially in Lahti, have been the U.S. team’s jam for some time.
“It’s been a great race historically for us,” Grover said. “When we looked ahead at what our best medal-potential races were for the championships, obviously skate sprints have been one of the best events for us for years in general, but in particular for these championships, we really targeted this day.”
Canada entered three women, all members of its U25 Team, with Dahria Beatty placing 37th and missing the top 30 necessary to qualify for the heats by 3.67 seconds. Cendrine Browne finished 48th (+20.42) and Katherine Stewart-Jones 58th (+26.29) out of 107 women in the qualifier.
— Harald Zimmer, Chelsea Little, and Alex Kochon contributed