Coming off a two-season hiatus from the World Cup for having a banned steroid in her system, Norway’s Therese Johaug has come back onto the distance race stage with time checks and results showing no remorse. This is not to say that Johaug’s reentry to the sport comes with arrogance. But it is to highlight that, on course, her level of control in the early season World Cup distance events has been dominant. Johaug has won all five World Cup distance events thus far. Her string of first places is a way of saying she’ll let the results speak for themselves and her dominance seep into the minds of those who want to fight for second and third place.
Sunday was yet another win for Johaug. The up-tempo skier won the 10-kilometer freestyle individual start in Davos in a time of 26:06.9 minutes. She led the race at every intermediate time checkpoint.
It was Johaug’s 81st World Cup podium. She trails only Norway’s legend Marit Bjørgen who won 99 World Cup podiums during her career.
The second place finisher on Sunday, Johaug’s teammate Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, had the benefit of starting two places behind the eventual race winner: Johaug started in bib 36, Østberg in bib 38.
Through the 5 k lap mark, Østberg was able to keep Johaug’s gap no bigger than 10 seconds. On the second lap’s long climb, Østberg only lost a handful of seconds. Her finishing time of 26:19.0 minutes was 12.1 seconds behind Johaug.
For Østberg, it was her third distance podium in succession after placing second in Lillehammer’s 10 k classic pursuit, and third in Beitostølen’s 15 k freestyle individual start race.
Johaug leads the World Cup overall with a perfect score of 600 points. Østberg sits in second, with a 149 point deficit.
Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski placed third on Sunday, 19.2 seconds back. It was Pärmäkoski’s first podium of the season. She currently is ranked fourth overall on the World Cup.
The U.S. placed two skiers in the top-10. Jessie Diggins placed fifth and Rosie Brennan sixth.
For Diggins, it was her best result of the season after her eighth place in Beitostølen’s 15 k skate.
“For me period 1 is a building phase, and it’s a really long season, and every single year I always build into period 1,” Diggins said in a phone call. “And I have to remind myself that I do this for me and that I follow a plan that has worked every other year, so I just have to remember that I will be in the right shape when it’s time. And for me, period 1 is not that time. So I’m really happy that it’s been trending positive.”
Last season, after the Davos distance race, Diggins was eighth overall on the World Cup. Post-Sunday’s race, Diggins sits 13th overall and eighth in the distance cup standings.
The building phase of her season set up a solid foundation on Sunday. Her pace was consistent and only placed her 15.8 seconds out of third at the halfway point. She ended up 1:01.1 minutes behind Johaug at the finish.
“I think that technically, I was really proud of my race today because of the way I skied,” Diggins said of her on course sensations. “It’s hard on a course like this to not go out guns blazing and just charge and then totally flood. Because that’s when I think you can lose so much time. For me, I was just so focused on trying to ski with a strong core and efficient, long-gliding v2 and I was just happy with it because it’s a really hard course to pace, and of course, you’re never sure if you nailed it or not.”
With a two week break from racing, Diggins will be training in Seefeld, Austria during the race respite. Next up on the Diggins race schedule is the Tour de Ski (TdS). She placed third overall in the TdS last season, a historic mark for an American. Although she has ambitions at the TdS, Diggins also clarified that it remains a piece in the building-form puzzle. In-form or trending towards the sharp end of fitness, Diggins understands the possibility for more positive outcomes on the result sheet are more palpable as the season progresses.
“For me, I feel like period 1 and the Tour are really crucial building blocks for the season ahead, so I’m looking to take really good care of myself and just like get after it in the Tour. I do think that parts of a season are building blocks where you recognize that maybe you’re not in top form, and that’s on purpose because of the training load you’re carrying in. So you want to do the best you can with what you have. You’re not setting unrealistic expectations that might set you up to be bummed out. For me being like ‘I want to win Kuusamo 10k Classic’ would be an unrealistic expectation from myself. So I think that the Tour, yes, I would like to get a podium in the Tour, obviously, like I think that’s a good event for me, for my strengths, I really, really like it.”
Seeing Diggins steadily improve this season is no surprise. That has been her blueprint for success in the past. Arguably the biggest surprise in total on the women’s World Cup is Brennan’s success.
Brennan placed sixth (+1:04.9) on Sunday for her best career individual World Cup result.
“I just really wanted to feel good racing again and to enjoy it again,” Brennan said in a call. “I was just so miserable last year, and it was it hard decision to know if it was even worth it to continue on if I could find not only fun in racing again but also good form and just good race feelings.”
Brennan’s struggle with fatigue and recovery soured her 2017-2018 season. Her down season resulted in her not being renominated to the U.S. Ski Team. What is clear now is that Brennan has found herself in an unprecedented place. Ranked 11th in the World Cup distance standings, Brennan was able to savor her Sunday in Davos.
“Today was definitely the most fun race I’ve had all period, so I’m leaving period 1 on a high note, there’s not much more I could ask for, so it’s been great,” Brennan said.
Her current high note has not allowed her to lose sight of managing her long-term energy and goals. Brennan will not race the TdS and will return to the U.S. for a training block.
“I had made that plan before the season started, and obviously with good results, it became a very difficult decision,” Brennan said of deciding to forgo the TdS. “But given how late World Champs is in the season this year, I really wanted to make sure that I had enough training under my belt to make it to World Champs, so I’ve decided to stick with the plan.”
Currently, Brennan has not automatically qualified for World Championship team selection. She’ll have to remain in the top-50 of the distance standings before the selection period for the team ends.
“The selection ends the second-to-last day of the Tour, and the Tour is only half points,” Brenna explained. “So I feel confident that I will remain in the top-50. So that helped make the decision easier. I have no pressure to race anything, so I’m just going to focus on training and keeping good fitness through the rest of the season.”
Also for the U.S., Caitlin Patterson placed 38th (+2:22.5) and Kelsey Phinney 65th (+4:02.1). Sadie Bjornsen did not start and according to U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb, that decision was part of her pre-determined race schedule.
Canada’s Emily Nishikawa stormed into the top-30 in only her second World Cup start of the season to place 23rd (+1:47.6). Cendrine Browne(CNST) was 44th (+2:28.8).
For Nishikawa, the result ties her career best on the World Cup. She placed 23rd in a 2015 10 k classic in Lahti, Finland. In an email, Nishikawa explained that living in and training in Canmore mitigated some of the altitude effects of racing in Davos. During her race, she was caught by Diggins around 7 k.
Racing continues on the World Cup on December 29, for the TdS’s opening stage skate sprint.
— David Brown contributed