PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) – The American team of Jessica Diggins and Kikkan Randall set out Wednesday night to win the country’s first Olympic medal in the sport since 1976 and the first of any kind for the US women’s team. But their thoughts turned to something even more special as the race wore on.
“Lap one we were skiing a little more conservative and I thought, ‘OK there are too many people, I am going to start to string it out,” Diggins said.
In the team sprint, each woman skis a lap and then tags her partner, who then does another lap.
They do this three times, each completing three laps.
On her second lap – the fourth of the race overall – Diggins started to push the pace, saying the goal was to tire out some of the sprinters.
By the time the fifth lap arrived, Randall had developed her own strategy. Her goal was simple but difficult: Stay on the heels of Norway’s Marit Bjoergen and Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla – arguably the best two women’s cross-country skiers in the world – and give Diggins a shot to make a run and solidify at least a medal on the final leg.
Randall did just that, staying with the lead pack of three as they pulled away from the rest of the group.
As she completed lap five of six, a medal now seemed certain for the Americans.
Diggins knew it.
That’s when she mentally switched gears, sensing this could be a historic night.
“On Kikkan’s last lap I saw there were just three of them and I was like, ‘A medal is not enough anymore, I want to win this,'” Diggins said.
She arrived at a plan to make that happen, purposefully holding back a little in third place on the uphill drive until the threesome reached the final downhill, her favorite part of the race.
“I wanted to be in third to be able to get that draft and get a slingshot into a really good position,” Diggins said.
Diggins said at that moment she felt unstoppable.
She passed Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla on the downhill, then rounded the final corner and set her sights on Sweden’s Stina Nilsson on the final 100-meter stretch. As she did, Diggins said she said felt like a spring that had been uncoiled.
“I could feel her behind me when the last 100 meters came,” Nilsson said, “so I just tried to focus on my skiing and do my best. But she was stronger than me.”
Diggins dug deep, taking the lane nearest the grandstand, where the rest of the American cross-country team was on its feet screaming and cheering her to the finish line.
“I was thinking, ‘Go, go, go,'” Diggins said. “I’m giving it everything I had and I’ve got someone (Randall) who I really love and care about waiting for me at the finishing line and I just want to make her proud.”
She passed Nilsson with about 25 meters remaining and stretched her left foot over the line ahead of the Swede.
From there, the celebration was on.
“That feeling of crossing the line and having Kikkan tackle me was the coolest thing ever,” Diggins said.
Diggins‘ father, Clay Diggins, called her daughter’s last 300 meters “pure determination, pure guts.”
Diggins is 25, but this will be Randall’s last Olympic Games at age 35.
So it will be time to start looking for younger skiers to take the victory and run with it.
The gold medal will undoubtedly help put cross-country skiing on the map in the United States and motivate what is already a talented group of young skiers coming up through the ranks. They are already winning medals in junior cup championships but now have proof they can not only compete with the Norwegians and the Swedes but can also win.
“They are coming up hot, and they’re working so hard and it’s so cool to see that we’re not going to retire and leave this gaping hole,” Diggins said. “There’s people coming to take our places and I think that’s the coolest thing ever.”