Until the very end of Saturday’s 1.6-kilometer freestyle sprint race in Cogne, Italy, American Jessie Diggins had those watching on the edge of their seats. She advanced as the lucky loser in her quarterfinal and then once again in her semi final, before winning the final in a lunge to the line.
“Man I am glad they do lucky losers here!” Diggins told the International Ski Federation after winning Saturday’s sprint. “It’s so fun to be in Italy, I love it here, your pasta is the best! Thank you guys for cheering so loud, this was a lot of fun!”
Diggins started the day by qualifying in seventh, 5.18 seconds off of the fastest qualifying time of 3:37.06 posted by Switzerland’s Nadine Fähndrich. She was then slotted into the first quarterfinal along with Germany’s Sandra Ringwald, Norwegians Ane Appelkvist Stenseth and Anna Svendsen, Russia’s Natalia Nepryaeva, and Diggin’s U.S. Ski Team teammate, Ida Sargent. Diggins crossed her quarterfinal in fourth, behind Ringwald in first, Nepryaeva in second and Appelkvist Stenseth in third. The fast times in Quarterfinal 1 produced two lucky losers: Appelkvist Stenseth and Diggins. She had secured a spot in the semis.
Matched up against U.S. teammate, Sadie Bjornsen in Semi final 1, Diggins crossed third behind Ringwald in second and Bjornsen first. The fast times, however, once again worked in favor of Diggins and she advanced to the finals as a lucky loser.
During the final, it appeared Germany’s Sandra Ringwald was on her way to the win. She made her move in the course’s major climb, gapping the field by a little more than a meter. Chasing her down were Diggins, Appelkvist Stenseth and Sweden’s Johanna Hagström. By the last hiccup of a hill before the finishing stretch, however, Diggins was closing in. With 100-meters to go she trailed the German, but by less than half a meter. The two lunged for the line, with Diggins bringing in the win. This is the first individual World Cup sprint victory for Diggins, and her first win of the 2018/2019 ski season.
“Honestly, there have been lots of ups and downs this year,” Diggins told FIS after her win. “I’ve been sick a lot, there has been a lot of doubt, and sometime losing my self-confidence. So it’s good to remember you don’t know what’s going to happen until the last 100-meters of any race, and you just have to believe in yourself and keep pushing the whole way.”
Finishing in second place overall, 0.11 seconds behind Diggins was Ringwald. After qualifying in fourth, the German skied smooth and strong, winning her quarterfinal and crossing second in her semi final. Her second place finish in the final is her first individual World Cup podium–in 2017 she earned a second place with Team Germany in the 4 x 5 k relay in Ulricehamn and in 2016, she and Hanna Kolb, who retired this spring, partnered up to take third in the Planica Team Sprint.
Following Ringwald, Sweden’s Johanna Hagström, crossed third on Saturday, 0.86 seconds back from Diggins. After qualifying ninth, Hagström crossed her quarterfinal in second. She went on to snag a lucky loser spot from her semi final to advance to the final. This is also her first individual World Cup podium finish.
Racer’s enjoyed blue skies and warm temperatures in Cogne on Saturday. When prompted about the course conditions Diggins told FasterSkier during a phone conversation that “It was incredibly hot, everyone was making fun of me because I was rubbing handfuls of snow over my neck and my arms, I was so hot, it was ridiculous out there, it felt like skiing in April, so sunny and gorgeous.”
These warm temperatures made for changing snow conditions, but according to Diggins, the USST wax technicians had no problem keeping up.
“Halfway through rounds we switched skis and switched structure, and they kept keeping up as the course was breaking down in the sun, and that was really impressive,” Diggins said. “With a long gliding downhill, you needed the speed today. My Salomon boards were smoking today, and I really needed that in the finishing stretch.”
“I’m just really grateful to them for all the hard work that they are always doing, you don’t see it on the TV, but you know there is a huge team of people there, just working so hard, and definitely skiing way more the we are,” Diggins added.
The next American finisher was Bjornsen who ended the day in fifth, 2.32 seconds behind her teammate Diggins. With World Championships taking place in Seefeld, Austria next week, a few U.S. skiers chose to sit out last weekend’s World Cup races in Lahti, Finland and partake instead in a training camp in Davos, Switzerland. Due to that camp, Bjornsen indicated during a phone conversation with FasterSkier that she “didn’t really know what to expect today.”
“I’m definitely starting to feel a bit better than I have for a while, so I was encouraged by that,” Bjornsen said. “I was pleasantly surprised to find quite good feelings today, so that’s really nice right before World Champs.”
Prior to Saturday, Bjornsen explained that her race strategy was to lead as little as possible during the heats. However, that changed, she said, after she saw her teammates Diggins and Sophie Caldwell ski their quarterfinals. also talked
“It looked so stressful to me to try to make moves, so I ditched my plan and decided I was going to go back to my leading plan and I’m really happy I did,” Bjornsen said.
“In the semifinal, I tried a new tactic to try to stay in the front, but maybe not the front-front because we had a stacked semifinal and that also worked quite well, and I saw that I had some extra power in that final uphill so when I finished my semi I was like ‘oh man, I can win today, I feel amazing!’” she said.
By the final, however, Bjornsen’s energy reserves were burning low.
“Going into the finals, I could feel right away a little bit of a power outage, but when I went over the top of the climb, I was like ‘the race is not over until it’s over so I’m going to keep fighting because I know I can be strong until the last uphill,'” she said.
In the final uphill Norway’s Appelkvist Stenseth maneuvered in front of Bjornsen, breaking her momentum.
“Getting stopped like that and having to go again, I didn’t have that final gear to do that,” Bjornsen said.
Following the two women in the final, the U.S. had four more top 30 results, with Julia Kern placing just outside the top ten in 11th, Sophie Caldwell 17th, Ida Sargent 24th and Rosie Brennan 27th.
Racing in Quarterfinal 4, Kern was up against Germany’s Laura Gimmler, Sweden’s Linn Sömskar and Moa Lundgren Russia’s Tatiana Aleshina and Slovenia’s Alenka Cebasek. In the first climb, Kern charged to the front and kept the front charging pace through skied into second place during her quarterfinal. In the second semi final, Kern crossed sixth to place 11th overall.
“I was in the fourth quarterfinal so I was able to watch the heats before me on the jumbotron and get advice from my teammates who raced in the earlier heats. We noticed that people were getting boxed in so my tactic was to ski as close to the front as possible. I ended up leading my quarterfinal, similar to what Sadie’s tactic ended up being in her quarterfinal.”
Prior to Saturday’s finish, Kern’s career best World Cup result came in the Dresden city sprint this year where she finished 19th.
Caldwell crossed fourth in her quarterfinals and did not advance to the semis. Brennan and Sargent also did not advance past the quarterfinals.
“I love racing in Italy!” Brennan wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “It’s beautiful here and the courses are quite different from many other World Cup courses so it’s been a great change of pace.”
Brennan was one U.S. athlete who chose to sit out last weekend’s World Cup races in order to complete the Davos training camp.
“I had a great training camp in Davos and am feeling much better so I was optimistic for today’s race.” Brennan said. “The qualifier went well and I’m always excited to get a shot at the heats. I did a really poor job of skiing to my strengths in my heat and struggled a bit with my skis so I am disappointed in how things went there. I am excited to see where my distance shape is tomorrow!”
Also skiing for the U.S., Kelsey Phinney finished in 33rd, 1.03 seconds outside of qualification.
Four Canadian women raced on Saturday, with Dahria Beatty leading the way in 38th. The next Canadian finisher after Beatty was Cendrine Browne in 48th, followed by Maya Macisaac-Jones 49th and Katherine Stewart-Jones 51st.
–Harald Zimmer contributed