FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.
VAL DI FIEMME, Italy — When the American dream team of Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall woke up on Sunday morning before the team sprint at World Championships, they knew anything was possible once they set foot in the stadium. Their emotional win from Quebec City fresh in their memories, they were easily the favorites going into the team event and both women knew a gold medal was within reach.
“We knew that if everything came together we could have a really good race, but it’s sprint racing,” Diggins told reporters later. “Things happen.”
Things like losing a pole, which happened to Diggins on her final lap. Things like having a coach in the right place to hand off a replacement. The weight of expectations could have been their undoing, but instead Randall and Diggins rose to the occasion spectacularly. The pair of Americans — one a seasoned 30 year old and the other just 21 — skied like they’ve been sprinting together for years. On a day that the American cross-country ski community will talk about for a long time to come, the duo won gold by a remarkable 7.8 seconds over Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla and Ida Ingemarsdotter. This is the United States’ first gold medal at World Championships in cross-country skiing.
“It’s unreal,” Randall told FasterSkier a few minutes later. “This is a moment you dream about for a long time and we just knew that if we went out there and skied well and stayed out of trouble we could do it.”
Team sprints only take about twenty minutes. They consist of six laps, five exchanges, and two skiers to a team. Diggins and Randall were fueled by confidence, inspiration, power and gritty adaptability, and together never lost sight of the end goal. Even when Diggins lost a pole she didn’t miss a beat, swinging her left arm and using her right as she kept pace with Finland’s Riika Sarasoja-Lilja and reached for a new one within seconds.
“The girl skiing behind me stepped on my pole, it came right off, but I ski with my legs a lot anyways,” Diggins said. “I was still riding a huge adrenaline wave so I was like, ‘All right, go, go, go, go, go!’ And it didn’t even end up mattering.”
Although the replacement pole was a few inches too long, Diggins still scampered ahead of Sarasoja-Lilja with everything she had to give Randall the lead on the last lap.
“I was just thinking, ‘Go, go, go, because they’re drafting you, you have to get a lead, take off to put her in the best position you can,’” Diggins explained. “I didn’t know where everybody else was because I was just trying to stay on my feet and push as hard as I could.”
Her quick recovery floored her coaches.
“She didn’t care, she just kept on motoring,” U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb said of Diggins’ recovery. “It was quite amazing. She was able to hand off to Kikkan with a bit of a gap and away she went.”
When Randall gets a tag in the lead there isn’t much anyone can do to take it back. But it was somehow still astounding to see Randall emerge over the final hill light-years ahead of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Italy. Through freshly falling snow, Randall powered past the grandstand, only easing off at the last second to raise her arm in triumph.
Randall doesn’t often collapse after races, but on Sunday she lay in the snow for a few minutes from exhaustion, to let the moment sink in, or some combination of both. Diggins leapt to join her, and for a brief minute it was just the two of them on the ground, the snow stretched out behind them. Diggins cried happily as Randall caught her breath, still wearing her skis.
“I started crying when I realized my mom and dad were watching on TV,” Diggins said. “It sunk in that — wow. We’ve been training so hard for so long and just, I think it means a lot for the whole team. It takes an entire team to make a race like this come together.”
The effort brought admiration from their competitors. “Today they were too strong,” Kalla said. “They had really good speed on the last lap, for me it was hard to catch [them]. I had hoped to send out Ida [Ingemarsdotter] with Kikkan.”
The full impact of the history Randall and Diggins made in Italy may take a little while to sink in, but for the entire American crew at World Championships, their gold medal was the perfect way to go down in the record books. It was a team event, and it perfectly reflects how the group works together.
“It’s really fitting for this whole group that it’s a team medal,” Whitcomb said. “It’s only two of them, but it’s so like this team to score big at an event that relies on one another.”
Randall couldn’t agree more. She’s been coming to World Championships for over ten years and has witnessed firsthand how far the United States has come in the sport since she first began on the international stage. In 2009, Randall made history with an individual silver medal, but to win gold with a teammate four years later was something entirely different.
“I knew that if we skied well today we had a chance to win, and that’s exciting — just the possibility,” Randall said. “To come in and have Jessie ski with such composure and make a good move like that, even overcome a little adversity out there, I was so, so proud of her for just staying calm.
“For me it’s been a long time coming. I was here ten years ago when this wasn’t even a remote possibility so it’s pretty cool to do it and do it with a teammate.”
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting.