About seven minutes into the women’s 10-kilometer freestyle mass start on Sunday at the World Cup in Seefeld, Austria, Jessie Diggins made her intentions clear. She wasn’t in it for a free ride — she was willing to pull, and not just take her turn up front, but actually try to string out the field and win this thing.
As she led a group of 31 within 15 seconds of her at 3.3 k, Diggins, a 26-year-old U.S. Ski Team member who’s on a mission for medals at the upcoming Olympics in two weeks, never looked back. She didn’t ask for help from the Norwegians behind her; she just hammered.
Meanwhile, Norwegian teammates Heidi Weng and Ingvild Flugstad Østberg kept her close, and at 4.6 k, Østberg moved into first. The group was down to 12, with another American hanging in there as well, as Sadie Bjornsen skied in 12th, 4.6 seconds back.
Two kilometers later, it appeared the Norwegians were working together, not just to keep themselves through the race, but to prevent Diggins from getting too close to the front. Diggins remained in third, less than a second behind Østberg and Weng, while a third Norwegian Ragnhild Haga skied just behind her. Switzerland’s Nathalie von Siebenthal and Germany’s Katharina Hennig remained in the mix in fifth and sixth, about two seconds back, as did Norway’s Kari Øyre Slind and Bjornsen another second behind.
With just over 2 k to go, Diggins attacked in earnest near the bottom of the last grueling (nearly 500-meter-long), multi-tiered climb on the women’s 3.3 k course. No one was able to match her pace, not Østberg, not Weng, not Haga, as she raced up the rest of the hill and over the top completely alone.
Behind her, the chase group split in two, with the three aforementioned Norwegians then approximately eight others skiing several meters behind. Bjornsen was in that second group, which continued to drop in numbers as they continued up the climb.
On the winding descent back toward the stadium, with just under a kilometer to go, Diggins put all of her faith into her skis.
“I felt awesome, my skis were amazing, the techs worked so hard,” she told FasterSkier in person after. “These Salomon skis I was on were just ripping down that corner.”
But before the final hill, a relatively small rise about 200 meters before the finish, Weng and Haga were close, just a few strides and about a second behind. Again, Diggins didn’t look back; she simply used every ounce of everything she had left — energy and technique-wise — to get the maximum number of pushes in before the finish.
And she did it. Diggins held off the two Norwegians, crossing the line first in 23:08.5 and throwing her fists down in elation. Seven-tenths of a second behind her, Weng free-skated to second place, just 0.3 seconds ahead of Haga in third. Østberg finished 7.7 seconds later in fourth (+8.7), and the fourth Norwegian in the top five, Marit Bjørgen placed fifth (+16.7) just ahead of Austria’s Teresa Stadlober in sixth (+16.9), Slind in seventh (+19.1), and Bjornsen in eighth (+20.5). Von Siebenthal followed in ninth (+30.3) and Finland’s Kerttu Niskanen placed 10th (+31.8).
Notably, it was Bjørgen’s first World Cup race since mid-December. But even more notably, for the second-straight race in Seefeld — the site of next year’s 2019 World Championships — an American woman won. Sophie Caldwell tied for first in Saturday’s freestyle sprint, and on Sunday, it was all about Diggins.
For Diggins, the win was her first in over a year and her fourth-career individual World Cup victory. And she did so in the last race before the Winter Olympics start on Feb. 10 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“It’s a really good time to figure out how to ski a 10 k race,” Diggins told FasterSkier after. “I am really excited. I’m so pumped for the Games, I’m feeling well, the peaking plan is working, and I’m just excited to get there and see what I can do.”
She apparently took mental notes on the men’s 15 k mass start that took place earlier on Sunday, as Switzerland’s Dario Cologna attacked on the same climb to secure the win ahead of Canada’s Alex Harvey and Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby.
“I saw how well it worked for Dario, and I thought, ‘OK, I’m gonna go for it! I just have to ski gutsy and if they reel me in they reel me in, but maybe I can hold them off,’ ” she reflected.
“I just put my head down and it wasn’t pretty, but I just hammered,” she said in a post-race interview with the International Ski Federation (FIS).
Before that, Diggins said she had been trying to figure out where to ski in the pack.
“ ‘OK, if I’m in the front, how hard am I working? If I’m in the middle…’ You don’t want your poles to get stepped on so it’s easier for me to just be near the front the whole time,” she told FasterSkier.
Diggins’s three other wins have come in 5 k freestyle individual starts — all of which were stage World Cups. Sunday marked her first time getting 100 points, rather than 50, for the win, which counts toward overall World Cup standings. Heading into the Olympics, she ranks third in the Overall World Cup (379 points behind Weng in first and 180 behind Østberg in second) and third in the Distance World Cup (225 points behind Weng in first and 108 behind Østberg in second). Bjornsen is seventh in the overall standings and 11th in distance.
“I’m happy with how I raced,” Weng said after Sunday’s race, according to a FIS press release. “I made a mistake up the final climb and then couldn’t go with Diggins, but I pushed hard all the way to the finish, but Diggins was the better skier today.”
Bjornsen is seventh in the overall standings and 11th in distance.
“It was an exciting, and super fun final race before the Olympic Games!” Bjornsen wrote in an email to media outlets. “Today’s 10k skate was hot from the start, on a really fun course here in Seefeld. I think the nature of the course kind of held the pack together a bit more, which always makes for a fun race! I felt really good out there, and was super happy with the day.
“I feel like I made a bit of a tactical error being stuck behind some skiers that were dying a bit on the far part of that last lap, but it is one new step for me,” she continued. “I learned something out there, and I challenged myself, and I am feeling really good about the feelings I have in my legs leading into the games! It will be great to have two more weeks to rest, recover, and come in sharp for these exciting races to come. I am so excited to see our team on fire right now too. The vibe is great, the spirit is high, and we are so excited to take on the world in a few weeks here! Win or lose, I think this team is going to do something great!”
Eighth place is Bjornsen’s best result in distance skate race longer than 5 k, not counting pursuits. Earlier in the day, her brother Erik finished ninth in the men’s 15 k.
“ … I got my brother by one spot, which is a daily competition for the two of us,” Bjornsen wrote. “He set the bar high this morning. I am just so excited to see how well he did, and Simi [Hamilton, who placed 12th] as well. Those two have a bright future for the team sprint, I can’t even wait to watch!”
Three American women landed in the top 15 and five were in the top 30 on Sunday. Kikkan Randall finished 14th, 48.5 seconds behind Diggins and just over eight seconds outside of the top 10.
“I think it was a good race, I don’t think it was a great race,” Randall told FasterSkier on Sunday. “I made a bad tactical move on the first lap and missed that first group when they went, so then I spent some time chasing and I had a good energy left at the end so that was fun. … I think every race is going to get better and better so I am pretty happy with today.”
The result tied her previous best distance finish this season (a 10 k freestyle in Davos, Switzerland). Randall has been dealing with a stress reaction and tendonitis in her foot since that Davos World Cup in mid-December.
“Foot is hanging in there, its not great, but it’s good enough to race,” she said. “To make it through two skate races here and still holding together I am optimistic, so now we kind of just go to single races [at the Olympics], so I think I will be able to make it through the season. I also made it in the stadium today just in time to see Jessie win.”
Caitlin Patterson of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) finished 23rd (+1:00.7) for her second time in the World Cup points (top 30) in as many distance races she’s competed in this season. The U.S. SuperTour leader after Period 1, Patterson earned World Cup starts for Period 2 in January and is also headed to the PyeongChang Olympics.
On Sunday, she said she had to adjust to the stop-and-go pace near the back of the pack.
“I think I was still getting used to the pace swings, the way you go up and down and … accordion and stuff, but it was a good fun race,” Patterson said. “I think I had a few struggle moments on some of the bigger climbs … but I held it together, and the downhills were good and I was pretty happy with the finish, passing at least one person, catching up to the tail end of a pack in front of me. … Some good fun over here.”
Liz Stephen also finished in the top 30 in 29th (+1:18.2) after working her way up in the pack from 44th at 3.9 k. It was her sixth top 30 of the season. Also for the U.S., Rosie Brennan finished 53rd (+2:26.9).
Emily Nishikawa of the Canadian World Cup Team led three Canadian women in 35th (+1:36.5). Just one-tenth of a second later, Cendrine Browne (Canadian U25 Team) followed her across the line and placed 37th (+1:36.6) in a photo finish with France’s Coralie Bentz for 36th. Dahria Beatty (Canadian World Cup Team) finished about 22 seconds later in 45th (+1:58.9).
For the Canadian women, this weekend marked their first World Cup races in a month. While Nishikawa stayed in Europe to train during the Tour de Ski, Browne and Beatty returned to Canada for NorAm Olympic trials in early January. After that, they met up with Nishikawa and the rest of the team for a training block in Livigno, Italy.
“I think us three girls did really well today, considering we are just coming back from a training camp, so it’s really looking good for the Olympics,” Browne said.
“Just echoing what Cendrine said, coming off a training camp, you never really know what to expect for this weekend, but the goal is to be good at the Olympics,” Nishikawa said. “I was happy with the way I felt and the second half of the race. I need to work at starting a bit faster on the mass starts — somehow I end up at the back of the field and just work my way through it.”
“It was lots of fun,” Beatty said of her race. “I had a good start and then died a little bit in the middle, but it was nice to see some of [my teammates] up ahead and try to keep going. I actually had a really good last kilometer, I was able to finish strong and pick off some girls … I think it was one of my better distance races so far this year.”
While Beatty placed 20th in Saturday’s sprint for a season best, 45th marked her second best result of the World Cup season so far.
— Gabby Naranja, Ian Tovell and Harald Zimmer contributed