FALUN, Sweden — NOR. USA. USA.
Looking at the results monitor, those were the tri-letter country codes that popped into the top three at the end of the women’s 10-kilometer freestyle pursuit at World Cup Finals on Sunday.
The “NOR” belonged to Marit Bjørgen of Norway, who ended her 2017/2018 World Cup season with yet another win. In Sunday’s pursuit, the 37 year old led from start to finish and ended where she started, in first after covering the course in a time of 24:18.9 minutes.
For many who follow the World Cup, a Norwegian name — like Bjørgen, who has won more than 110 individual World Cup races — at the top of the results is nothing new. All due respect.
But the pressure for Scandinavia to hold off an American entourage is mounting; Sunday’s race presenting itself as a prime example.
A 41-second gap separated American Jessie Diggins from Bjørgen by the time she flipped past the start wand, her characteristic cheek sparkles visible from the stands. As the third starter on course, Diggins had sewn shut the 5 seconds that the day’s second starter, Ingvild Flugstad Østberg of Norway, had on the American and within the first kilometer, was establishing herself as Bjørgen’s main threat.
“I had 45 seconds in the total time at Mördarbacken the first time,” Bjørgen reflected in a post-race interview with FasterSkier. “And then it was 30 and then 20, then I was a little bit stressed. I thought, ‘Aha, I have to work harder a little bit.’ I feel like on the uphill I was the same speed as Jessica, but she was better than me on the easier part of the tracks. And I’m really happy to make it. I had to push hard in the end.”
After catching Østberg, Diggins led the Norwegian and eventually dropped her by 17 seconds at 3.75 k. On Bjørgen, she had gained just over five seconds in time. By the 5 k mark, Diggins was a little less than 30 seconds back, and had put 13.4 more seconds into the race leader.
“I was grateful to feel so good today,” Diggins told FasterSkier. “We had amazing skis and that was really important. Especially on a course with so much gradual climbing and gradual working downhills, you needed to have good skis, and our techs delivered. And they gave us the tools we needed to have a good day.”
At the 7.5 k mark, 20 seconds separated the American from the win. By the time Diggins crossed the finish line in second, she was 16.7 seconds behind Bjørgen. The effort from Diggins gave her the fastest time of day in 23:54.4 minutes, which was 24.5 seconds faster than Bjørgen’s time.
“It’s a sport of patience,” Diggins said. “I feel like I’ve been coming into my own with the confidence to know that any race I start, I can be trying to fight for the podium and racing like I can win. Instead of racing like, ‘Oh, I’m going to try to just see what I can do,’ it’s like, ‘No, I’m going to try to win.’ ”
But Diggins was not the only American hunting and holding off Norwegians. Her U.S. teammate Sadie Bjornsen, who had gone out hot in Saturday’s race in hopes of a podium, earned it on Sunday in a sprint finish for third (+1:11.5) between herself and Norway’s Ragnild Haga and Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen.
In the finishing stretch, Bjornsen, Haga and Jacobsen had gone head to head, with the American outlunging Haga — the gold medalist from this year’s Olympic 10 k state — by exactly half a second and beating Jacobsen by 1.3 seconds for the final spot on the podium.
“Coming into the final stretch I was like, ‘OK, that is the last time you get to do the final stretch this year and make it count,’ ” Bjornsen told FasterSkier. “It ended up working out for me, and that turned into quite the dream day.
“I think the step I made this year is one step closer to being in a place where Jessie is racing right now,” Bjornsen continued. “To have a teammate who is just pushing the bar just every single day and making me believe that in order to be the best racer in the world, you have to have no fear. Jessie is a great example of that and it is certainly contagious.”
On Sunday, Bjornsen had started 21 seconds behind Østberg and 29 seconds ahead of Haga. By 7.5 k Haga had caught the group battling for third, which included Bjornsen, Finland’s Krista Pärmäkoski, Østberg, Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, and Jacobsen. The group stayed together until the downhill back toward the stadium.
“I was like, ‘OK, I have to be smart here and keep pushing the pace hard enough that we do not get caught from behind, but conserve for that final sprint and then when I came into the sprint lap,’ ” Bjornsen reflected.
Along with being a podium threat in Sunday’s race, the Americans are also gunning full-speed ahead toward the top three in the overall, sprint or distance World Cup standings. On Friday, Sophie Caldwell of the U.S. claimed third in the season-long Sprint World Cup. On Sunday, Diggins stood on the podium in second in the Overall World Cup and third in the Distance World Cup.
“We are really showing that we are a skiing nation, and it’s taken so many years and so much hard work from a lot of people, but I think it’s so cool to show that we can be in the fight,” Diggins said.
“It’s been a many year goal of ours to be ranked in the top three for the women’s team and we secured that for the first time today,” U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb told FasterSkier of his team’s best-ever Nations Cup ranking. “We’ve come into [past] finals, I believe, ranked third and then come out of finals ranked fourth. We’ve been fifth. And I think as an entire team, men and women combined, … I think we’ve finished fifth, which would be exceptional. It was really quite an achievement for both our men’s and women’s teams.”
Whitcomb was right; the U.S. Ski Team placed fifth in the Nations Cup.
In the decade leading up to the past two World Cup seasons, podiums from American women peppered the circuit, but predominantly in sprints. Kikkan Randall holds most of those, having recorded 28 individual podiums before 2016, only five being in a distance greater than 2 k. Sophie Caldwell broke through with a third-place sprint finish in 2014.
American Liz Stephen had also reached the World Cup podium four times in distance races prior to 2016 — twice outright and twice for time of day.
From 2016 on, the number of podiums that have gone to U.S. women has only increased. Caldwell earned three podiums this season alone. Diggins has racked up a total of 14 individual World Cup podiums since her first (which was also a first place) in 5 k freestyle in Toblach, Italy, in 2016. Bjornsen now has a total of five podiums over the course of two seasons. Stephen added two more to her name, one time of day and one outright, and Randall another top three in this past December’s Davos sprint.
Whitcomb was quick to point out that much of this success, started with U.S. Ski Team veterans Randall and Stephen, who skied the last World Cup races of their careers on Sunday. Randall finished the race in 43rd (+4:33.3) with the 29th-fastest time of day, and Stephen 50th (+4:57.2).
“Honestly I start crying every time I think about it,” Whitcomb said, referring to the fact that Randall and Stephen will be retiring after this season. “It’s been a day that I have feared for my whole career, basically since I started working with Kikkan and Liz, really since they started working with us.
“I know we are not saying goodbye forever, but definitely we are saying goodbye in a certain capacity to two of the most important people that have ever set foot on the U.S. Ski Team,” he added.
The two spoke with Fasterskier after their last race together, perhaps fitting as Stephen joined the team in 2006, only a year after Randall. The pair have worked with Whitcomb for the past 12 years.
“As your whole career flashes before your eyes, it’s the people that are the best part,” Randall, 35, said.
In their career final World Cup race on Sunday, both Randall and Stephen donned unicorn headbands, pink arm warmers and spandex boyshorts inscribed with the words “Thank You!!” across the backend. During their pre-race morning run, they felt something was missing and made a spur-of-the-moment stop at a store to purchase a few “costume pieces” for the race. Their outfits sparked smiles as they completed the race, and there was no denying the message they hoped to send off as they departed the ski-racing world: the energy and enthusiasm of a strong team.
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“We are all most proud of the team we built,” Randall said. “To see it at such a good point and to know just because we are leaving the scene doesn’t mean it’s going away; these girls are going to continue to carry the torch, the young girls coming in.”
“I would second that,” Stephen, 31, said. “One of the main things was that we wanted to leave a program that sustain itself, and I think that we both feel very happy and confident that that is going to happen. Like Kikkan said, Jessie won more points this year alone than we used ever see in an entire season men and women combined, you know, 10 years ago, and so I think that is a testament of the success that we have been able to create for one another.”
Both Randall and Stephen were also given the opportunity to take a victory lap after the race, alongside Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen and Sweden’s Anna Haag, who sported a Disney Princess bath towel as a superhero cap, as well as a bejeweled crown (in an interview with FasterSkier, Haag explained the outfit had not been coordinated with the Americans, but was rather a coincindence. The Americans and Swedish skier are longtime friends and shared a nonalcoholic-champagne beverage in the finish area after the race).
“I certainly wasn’t expecting a send-off like that,” Stephen said. “That was really special, that the four of us were able to do that together.”
“I have done this 20 years … and I have raced my goals and even more,” Saarinen told FasterSkier. “Actually this skiing family is the thing what I’m going to miss the most.”
Also racing for the U.S. on Sunday, Caitlin Patterson finished the pursuit in 35th (+3:58.4) with the 22nd-fastest time of day, Caldwell finished in 36th (+4:00.7), Rosie Frankowski 46th (+4:41.3), Kaitlynn Miller 56th (+6:13.8), and Ida Sargent 57th (+7:06.4).
“It’s been a really unexpected good season, and I am really happy with it,” Miller said. “Today was awesome seeing Sadie and Jessie finish out the World Cup season like that.”
The Canadians were led by Cendrine Browne, who finished 39th (+4:14.4) with the 27th-fastest course time, followed by Emily Nishikawa in 48th (+4:43.7), Dahria Beatty in 54th (+6:04.3) and Zina Kocher in 60th (+9:28.4).
“I love the course, it is perfect for me,” Browne wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “Steep up hills and one skate sections are what I prefer best! I was suprised yes!!! All season I was trying so hard to get into the top 30. Maybe I was trying to hard and putting to much pressure on myself. Today, I decided to have fun and to forget everything and it just happened!”
“I am really happy about my season even if it was filled with so many emotions,” Browne continued. “Going to the Olympics and placing 33rd at my first Olympic race is definitely a highlight. Also, my 36th place in Holmenkollen is a huge accomplishment for me. Even if I fell twice and should have been in the top 30, it was an awesome race. And today’s 27th place is definitely the best thing that happened this season. Finishing the season like this fills my heart with joy and hope for next season.”
Notes: While there has been a lot of discussion about retirements, Bjørgen isn’t saying it’s over.
“I want to finish [the season] in a good way, but I think I’ve been at my very best. I’ve passed it [my peak],” Bjørgen said in a loosely translated interview with NRK on Friday.
So will she race next winter? Bjørgen estimated she would need to train at least 850 hours if she wanted to compete with her teammate Therese Johaug, who will be returning to the World Cup next season.
“It’s going to be a lot of training, and you have to prioritize a lot. That’s the toughest thing,” Bjørgen said. “But when I’m at work, it’s no problem. I’m here to do the job. Should I do one more year, I will not do it halfway [half-hearted].”
— Harald Zimmer, Ian Tovell, Andrea Pontyondy-Smith, and Alex Kochon contributed