Every year has its ups and downs, but for Jessie Diggins the 2015 season just wasn’t cutting it. Whether it was illness or general malaise, Diggins said her racing had yet to match her expectations.
That all changed for the U.S. Ski Team athlete in Rybinsk, Russia, where she skied to her second fifth-place finish of the weekend in Sunday’s 15 k skiathlon, just 2.9 seconds from the podium. En route to her top placement, Diggins clocked the second-fastest time of the 7.5 k freestyle portion, just 0.2 seconds off the pace of eventual race-winner Yulia Tchekaleva of Russia.
The placement matches Diggins best individual World Cup finish. She’s skied to fifth in four instances over her career, one of which was in Saturday’s freestyle sprint.
The 23-year-old is traditionally a stronger freestyle skier and thus planned accordingly. She aimed to ski calm and relaxed in the first 7.5 k classic leg so that she could give it her all in the final 7.5 k freestyle section. Given the course, Diggins knew that as long as she didn’t get too frustrated with the inevitable accordian affect of skiing in a pack, she would be in ideal position to strike in the final kilometers.
According to Diggins, the classic portion of the skiathon ended up going better than expected, as she fought to stay near the front to avoid the messiness of the pack. Heading into the exchange, Diggins was 13th, 37.0 seconds back from Tchekaleva. She exited the stadium ready to attack after posting the second fastest pit time. It was here, however, that Diggins found her greatest challenge of the race.
“I ended up being able to fight more in the classic to be up front and avoid the inchworm effect. It was in the skate half where I thought I was done a number of times. I was yo-yo-ing off the back of this pack. They would drop me on every uphill and I’d make it up on the flats and downhill. Then they drop me again,” she said in a post-race phone interview.
By 9 k Tchekaleva and eventual second-place finisher Martine Ek Hagen were out of reach, but the fight for third was far from over. A group of roughly six women formed behind the two leaders, jockeying for the final spot on the podium. Oblivious to the fact she was seconds away from her best World Cup result, Diggins skied at the back of the group hoping to hold on.
Working to counteract the mental challenge of playing catch-up, Diggins attempted to stay positive and ski smart. Aided by fast skis, she was patient as she approached the course’s final hill.
“It left me hungry for more. I’m definitely psyched, but to see the podium right there is a crazy feeling,” – Jessie Diggins on finishing 2.9 seconds away from Sunday’s podium.
“Eventually I was like ‘you just got to believe that you’re going to keep catching up.’ I was trying to not get dropped on the last hill and I trusted in my skis, which were crazy fast,” she said.
As the skiers attacked the steep pitch of the final climb Diggins made a move and used the momentum to power her way past several women. Skiing into the finish, she was just 2.9 seconds behind Riitta-Liisa Roponen of Finland and Stefanie Böhler of Germany, who lunged for third place.
“I wish I had known how close I was to third place because I would have tried to not get dropped quite as early,” Diggins said of the final meters. “I don’t know if much would have changed anyway, but I was getting closer and closer to those girls who were lunching for third, and that was so exciting.”
At the same time, however, Diggins explained that her lack of knowledge might have been for the best.
“I had no idea and it was probably better that way. If I knew I would have over thought it. For me it’s better when I’m having fun, soaking up the energy of the crowd, and going for it because I’m trying to ski fast,” she explained.
The Rybinsk World Cup weekend delivered Diggins’ best results of the season. Her 12th in Friday’s 10 k, coupled with to the two fifth places from Saturday’s sprint and Sunday’s skiathlon, mark one of the best weekends in the Minnesota native’s career.
Diggins acknowledged that the field was thin, with big names such as Norwegians Marit Bjørgen, Therese Johaug, and Heidi Weng skipping the Russian World Cup to prepare for World Championships. At the same time, she didn’t let the smaller field take away from the meaning of her accomplishment.
“There were some girls who weren’t here racing in Russia, but that’s part of racing – you have to show up and be on the start list if you want the results,” she said.
The strong weekend of racing comes after a period challenge for Diggins, who dropped out of the Tour de Ski due to illness earlier this month. She explained that prior to Friday, the 2015 season has been difficult due to high expectations that were never matched.
According to Diggins the weekend of racing in Rybinsk, especially Sunday’s skiathlon, left her feeling excited and sure of her skiing as World Championships approaches.
“[The skiathlon] left me really excited. I’m feeling like I’m much more confident in my skiing. I’m feeling like I’m back to the old Jessie and skiing like I used to last year when I had that confidence. It’s really cool to have that feeling back,” she explained
USST Women Land Four in the Top-20
Just behind Diggins in seventh place was teammate Liz Stephen, who earned her first World Cup podium in Friday’s 10 k freestyle. Starting the skiathlon with bib #1, Stephen led the charge out of the stadium.
“It was quite an experience starting with bib 1 for the first time ever in a World Cup for me, though the front position quickly disappeared as soon as the gun went off and I felt like a wave of water just overtook me, with girls passing on both sides all at once. It is amazing how fast these girls can get off the line. It is very apparent that I need to continue to work on my quickness off the line,” she wrote in an email.
Like Diggins, Stephen is a stronger freestyle skier, but clocked the seventh-fastest classic leg of the 15 k. In the skate portion Stephen was fighting in the chase group, but ultimately crossed the line 11.4 seconds out of third.
Stephen explained that the race was enjoyable due to the high level of competition, and that the largely successful weekend leaves her confident as the team enters two weeks of rest and training.
Teammate Sadie Bjornsen skied to 13th in the skiathlon, after jumping in and out of the top five during the classic portion of the race. She entered the technique switch in ninth, but ultimately skied the 29th-fastest freestyle leg to take her out of top-10 contention.
“After a solid classic leg, I struggled for a while when I first switched to skate, but was able to pull it together by the end. Russia has some challenging courses, but I have really enjoyed them this week!” she wrote in an email.
Rosie Brennan, who finished 20th, wrote that the skiathlon format was challenging but that she was excited to complete a mass start-like race on the World Cup. The SuperTour leader said she skied the race consistently despite some challenges in the classic leg and lack of a final kick.
“I skied the whole race within a few places of where I started, which I am happy about. I tend to prefer classic, but the classic was a little tricky today and the hills were quite steep so I was actually happy to switch to skate,” she wrote in an email. “I am definitely feeling some fatigue from the last month so I didn’t feel like I have much finishing speed which was a bummer because I was skiing in a pack and would have liked to finish in the front of that pack.”
Fellow American women Ida Sargent and Sophie Caldwell finished 35th and 43rd respectively.
With four skiers in the top-20 of the women’s races, U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said he was happy with his team’s effort.
“It was another good day, obviously, to have four in the top-20 on the ladies’ side and with Jessie and those guys were fighting for potential podium places,” Grover said in a phone interview. “We for sure wanted to have a podium in the last two days and we didn’t quite get there, but we were going for it.”
Two USST men started Sunday’s skiathlon but only one finished, with Matt Gelso placing 48th. Gelso said that his race was not what he wanted but that he was able to accomplish several personal goals vote the course of the 30 k.
Erik Bjornsen was sitting in 51st at the exchange, but exited the race during the freestyle portion due to fatigue. In an email to FasterSkier he wrote that his race was one of the most difficult of the season.
“It was a really bad day for me. Probably my worst since I got over here to Europe. I knew I was very exhausted going into the race but the goal was to hang in the field for as long as I could,” he wrote in an email. “I think it’s something I can be strong in but not today. I’m ready for some off days, I think this big load from all the hard racing will pay off in a couple weeks, should be perfect timing.”
The USST now heads to Davos, Switzerland to get some altitude training, rest and sun before traveling to Sweden in preparation for the 2015 World Championships. Most skiers expressed excitement for a break at the USST’s “home away from home.”
“I am really excited to have some good team time next week in Davos, with great tracks, sunny weather and fun activities all together – maybe even a video!” wrote Stephen.