FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden, is brought to you by the generous support of L.L. Bean, now featuring a complete line of Kikkan Randall training wear.
FALUN, Sweden — When Jessie Diggins crossed the finish line in Falun’s Lugnet Arena she collapsed. Unable to breathe and near tears after completing the 10-kilometer freestyle interval start at the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships, Diggins could barely move. She felt a hand on her back, but was hardly able to recognize who was comforting her.
The hand belonged to teammate Caitlin Gregg. The 34-year-old Gregg was the third starter and finished long before Diggins. She led the results for much of the day — unsurprising at first as the lower seeded skiers were at the front of Tuesday’s start list. However, she remained in the leader’s chair as skier after skier failed to match her time. It was only until Diggins finished that Gregg lost the lead.
When the whirlwind day — filled with blowing snow, tears and cheers — was complete, Diggins and Gregg placed second and third, respectively, behind home-crowd favorite Charlotte Kalla of Sweden. Kalla’s time of 25:08.8 outpaced Diggins by 41.0 seconds and Gregg by 46.9.
The results were historic. Until Tuesday, no American woman had earned a distance podium at an international-championship event. With the U.S. women’s results in the 2015 World Championships 10 k freestyle, that feat was accomplished twice over.
“I still cannot believe that this is happening, it feels like it is still sinking in.” Diggins said after the flower ceremony.
The night before the 10 k freestyle U.S. Ski Team women’s coach Matt Whitcomb gathered the team for a pep talk. According to Diggins and Gregg, the theme of his speech revolved around the simple question: Why not?
He emphasized that many skiers count themselves out before they’ve even had the chance and that every member of the U.S. team had the opportunity to achieve their best. The two skiers didn’t know it at the time, but Whitcomb’s central message — anything is possible –– would become a reality the next day.
Taking Whitcomb’s advice, both athletes entered the 10 k with high expectations. Diggins, a regular on the World Cup circuit, explained her goal was a top six: “If I was having an amazing day,” she said.
Prior to Tuesday her best result in a World Championships distance race was 23rd, while her best World Cup distance result was fifth. Gregg, on the other hand, skied with the goal of being an early leader. She easily accomplished her objective, but soon realized that her time was much better than she could have expected.
“My goal was to try to come in, be the leader, and put in a good time,” she said. “I think it took maybe another twenty or thirty skiers before I started realizing that it was actually a really, really good time.”
Gregg watched Diggins from the leader’s chair as the 23 year old trailed on the final climb and then roared into the finish to best Gregg by nearly six seconds. “Then all of a sudden things started to become a reality,” she said.
“I was hoping for maybe a top six if I was having an amazing day but I didn’t think that – of course I was skiing so hard and giving it everything I had – I just didn’t realize that everything I had was going to be a medal.” — Jessie Diggins, 2015 World Championships 10 k freestyle silver medalist
Conditions played a large role in Tuesday’s race, with light snow falling from the start. As the 10 k progressed, the flakes became larger and wetter, leaving many teams with poor wax. The Norwegians, whose powerhouse skiers like Marit Bjørgen, Therese Johaug, Heidi Weng and Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen often sweep the podium, were nowhere to be seen on the leaderboard. Their top finisher was Weng in 22nd, and the team complained of dragging skis in the new snow.
In sharp contrast, the U.S. skiers lauded their wax technicians for speedy skis. When asked by the Norwegian press whether her medal could be explained by the poor wax of the other competitors, Diggins said that waxing, good or bad, is part of ski racing.
“I wasn’t thinking about [the Norwegians] because a lot of times they have great skis. They don’t sit up here [when they medal] and say it was their skis,” she said. “I know I was lucky with the skis and how the snow was, but I also took advantage of the opportunity.”
“It was nice of Norway to share the podium,” she added with a smile.
As an early starter with bib 3, Gregg avoided the worst of the snow. Before the start, she wasn’t thrilled with the starting position because there wouldn’t be many opportunities for splits on course. Looking back, however, Gregg said the position was beneficial given the conditions.
“It’s hard to say, you can’t predict those kind of things but when they happen, you have to take opportunities like that and grab them and go,” she said.
This is Diggins’ second-career World Championships medal. Her first came from the 2013 freestyle team sprint in Val di Fiemme, Italy, where she joined forces with Kikkan Randall to claim gold. The pair was the first to earn a World Championships title in the history of U.S. skiing.
Diggins said that her first World Championships podium was much different than Tuesday’s. In 2013, she expected to medal in the event, while in 2015 she didn’t feel that pressure. According to the Minnesota native, Tuesday’s podium — while an individual start — felt like a team event because she and Gregg, who now lives in Minneapolis, shared the podium.
“To be here with Caitlin, it feels like another team event,” she said. “Just the fact that we’re making some history here as the first U.S. women to podium in a distance event at Championships is really crazy and it’s still sinking in.”
Gregg hasn’t been at, or near, the top of international skiing since the start of her career. The 34-year-old’s best World Cup result was in a 2010 Canmore World Cup, where she place 14th in the 10 k freestyle. Her next best result was last year in Falun at the 2014 World Cup Finals where she had the 25th fastest time in the 10 k pursuit. Last season, Gregg missed a spot on the Olympic team despite dominating the domestic distance circuit.
As the 2014 SuperTour leader, Gregg started the 2014/2015 season on the World Cup, but contracted shingles and consistently race in the 50s on the World Cup.
Due to USSA criteria and the previous year’s Olympic selections, it appeared uncertain whether or not Gregg would be named to the U.S. World Championships team. Come Jan. 26, however, Gregg’s name was on the list and she was preparing conquer the 10 k freestyle — a race she had been focusing on all year.
According to Gregg, Tuesday’s bronze medal was validation of a career that’s consisted of hard work and perseverance. She said her medal sent a clear message that developing skiers who aren’t often given the best opportunities from the start of their careers can still be successful — all it takes is a little passion and grit.
“If you really truly feel it in your heart, keep pushing, keep pushing,” she said. “Anything is possible. Obviously, a lot of things fell together today for me, but I think it is a super strong message.”
“Some skiers just take a little bit longer to get going,” she added with a laugh. “You can win your medal at 34 years old.”
To race the World Championships 10 k freestyle Gregg skipped the 2015 American Birkebeiner last weekend — a race both she and her husband Brian attempt to participate in every year. Gregg explained that many of her fans, friends and fellow competitors were disappointed that she couldn’t race in Wisconsin, but that her podium would likely help them forgive her.
“I know people were a little bit bummed I missed the Birkie, but I think they’re gonna forgive me this time,” she said.
After finishing the Birkie, Brian hopped on a plane to Sweden, arriving just in time to help test Gregg’s skis on Monday. He said that his wife’s focus and perseverance was the key to Tuesday’s success. He cited Gregg’s failure to make the U.S. Ski Team (USST) after the 2007 World Championships in addition her absence from last year’s Olympics as speedbumps in her career, and explained her ability to overcome such obstacles allowed her to fight for Tuesday’s podium.
“Sometimes when there’s more chaos, she does better,” he said. “She does well in these high-pressure championship events and nails the races she needs to nail.”
According to Whitcomb, the 10 k freestyle was always the U.S. women’s best shot at a medal in Falun.
“A lot of people have been talking about the team sprint being our best chances for a podium and I was absolutely in disagreement,” he said. “It was this day. I didn’t know who it was going to be, that’s for sure, but the 10 k and the relay are just fantastic events for us.”
Whitcomb added the USST’s ability to push through much of Tuesday’s adverse weather conditions also aided in Gregg’s and Diggins’ performaces.
“I think it was Phil Mickelson who always looked to those rainy days and said, ‘Bring it on because I know it’s gonna to bum people out. And this is not gonna bum me out.’ So today is our day for that,” he said.
Both Gregg and Diggins said that while cross-country skiing in the U.S. is not popular or well-funded like many European programs, the Americans create an environment that allows for success.
“It’s taken so many people to get us here,” Diggins said. “It took an amazing team of people here at the World Championships and this team of girls that we have been traveling around the world with.”
“I feel like the podium doesn’t just belong to us, it’s like skiing in the United States that’s there on the podium today,” she added.
Whitcomb agreed, saying a combination of peak fitness and U.S. team atmosphere were key to creating an environment for success.
“We knew what we needed to enter the championships with and that was rested athletes and a team that was tightly bound,” he explained. “I think you saw on some of our recent media productions that this team has come together really tightly and when the team is right, the racing is right.”
USST Head Coach Chris Grover added that two podiums at World Championships will help raise awareness for cross-country skiing in America.
“It helps us build a story about these underdogs from a country where we don’t have a big of a budget as some of our competitors or where cross country skiing is appreciated like it is in Scandinavia. Hopefully we can continue to ignite a new generation of young U.S. athletes,” he said.
Four U.S. Women in the Top 15
Diggins and Gregg weren’t the only U.S. skiers to turn heads Sunday. Liz Stephen (+1:06.4) skied to 10th, as a late starter who battled some of the worst of the snowy conditions. Before the 10 k, Stephen was seen as a U.S. favorite for a distance medal.
“Certainly it’s not the podium I put down on my goal sheet and that was in my brain when I started the race but I’m really happy with the effort. My day was in Russia this year and it will come again. I’m just so happy for the U.S. Ski Team,” she said, smiling.
“I’ve always skied for the effort and the team and the love I have for the sport, and today was a perfect representation of all of those,” Stephen added. “The podium is just a gold star you get at the end. The people and the sport are why I do it.”
Whitcomb was impressed with Stephen’s skiing and said it was the best he had seen from the 27-year-old team veteran.
“I’ve never seen Liz ski so perfectly as she did today. It’s the best I’ve ever seen out of her,” he said.
Just down the results sheet was Randall (+1:25.2) who finished 15th to give the U.S. women one of their best collective distance results to date. As the fourth starter of the day, Randall left the finish area with little idea of her placement and said her effort in the 10 k was far from what she wanted.
“I didn’t have a lot of snap out there, so yeah, another tough one,” Randall said. “Such a great atmosphere and such a great course, and not able to take advantage of it.”
Whitcomb explained that he had never seen a day like Tuesday’s where all four skiers placed within the top 15 and called it “picture-perfect.”
— Gerry Furseth contributed report and Alex Kochon contributed reporting