U.S. shocks cross-country field with sprint gold medal

It had been 15,367 days since an American reached the podium in the sport
Jessica Diggins and Kikkan Randall celebrate winning their gold medal.
Jessica Diggins and Kikkan Randall celebrate winning their gold medal.

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — A team of two American women ended one of the longest droughts in U.S. Olympic sports on Wednesday.

Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins won the women’s team sprint freestyle race at the Pyeongchang Games, outsprinting more heralded teams from Sweden and Norway to become the first Americans to win an Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing.

They are the first American cross country skiers to medal at the Olympics since Bill Koch took home a silver in 1976, 15,367 days ago.

“Hearing it out loud, it still doesn’t feel real,” said Randall, a five-time Olympian. “It’s what I’ve been working on for 20 years and with this team for the last five years and, wow, it’s just so fun to put it together tonight, finally.”

The win was especially sweet for Diggins. She had finished in the top six in each of her four Olympic events before the sprint relay, and missed a medal in the 10-kilometer freestyle last week by 3.3 seconds.

She came into Wednesday’s race undeterred, saying she would not have hung around the games if she had lost her hope of winning a medal. Then, under the lights on a chilly but calm night at Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Center, Diggins came off the final hill in third place on this winding up-and-down track and took a massive risk — gambling on the widest of turns at nearly 30 mph, she momentarily drifted outside the track to create the space she needed to dart ahead of Maiken Falla of Norway.

In the final straightaway, Diggins chased down Stina Nilsson of Sweden and outstretched her at the finish to win by 0.19 seconds. Norway claimed the bronze.

Diggins collapsed in the snow, and soon Randall was piling on top of her, celebrating a moment 46 years in the making. Randall said the first words out of Diggins’ mouth were, “Oh my gosh, did we just win the Olympics?”

“It feels unreal; I can’t believe it just happened,” Diggins said. “But we’ve been feeling so good these entire games, and just having it happen at a team event means so much more to me than any individual medal ever would.”

Randall and Diggins blasted through the semifinals, winning their heat with a time of 16:22.56, more than 10 seconds faster than the Norwegians, who also won their heat. The question was whether the Americans had burned too much energy claiming one of the 10 places in the final, and if they would have enough left to win it.

They did.

“In the final stretch I was just thinking, Go, go, go, I’m giving it everything I had and I’ve got someone who I really love and care about waiting for me at the finishing line and I just want to make her proud,” Diggins said.

The Americans’ winning time — 15:56.47 — was a 26-second improvement on their semifinal effort. But the gold was not their first milestone.

In 2013, Randall and Diggins won a world championship gold medal — the first for the United States — by taking the women’s team sprint by almost 8 seconds. In 2017, they won individual medals at the worlds: Diggins took home the silver in the sprint and Randall the bronze. Diggins also won the bronze in the team sprint at that meet, skiing with Sadie Bjornsen.

Those achievements produced high expectations for the American women in Pyeongchang. A book has been written about them, and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association promoted them extensively heading into the games. But American women have arrived at the Olympics before with a decent shot at a medal, only to be stymied by their rivals from Europe.

That situation seemed to be repeating itself through the first 11 days of these Olympics. Diggins finished fifth in the women’s skiathlon, the highest Olympic finish to that point for a U.S. woman, but out of the medals.

Then she was sixth in the sprint, running out of gas in the finals. Then came the 3.3-second miss in the 10-kilometer race.

“I pushed my body so far past its limits I’m actually kind of amazed I didn’t pass out on that final climb,” she wrote on Instagram.

Sprinting — especially uphill — is her specialty though, and this course, which includes two nasty ascents, gave her and Randall an opportunity for a prize that had eluded U.S. skiers for more than four decades.

The team sprint — especially on this brutal course — is a sadistic event. It requires two skiers to take turns skiing three legs each of 1.25 kilometers. With two rounds of racing for the top 10 teams, that means six all-out sprints for each skier, with a little more than an hour to recover between the semifinals and the final.

Diggins and Randall skied as if they have been winning on the biggest stages for years. Diggins all but locked up a medal on the fourth leg, pushing into first place and building a 10-second cushion over fourth-place Sweden.

That was when Luke Bodensteiner, an official with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and a former Olympian, said he saw the race shift. “At that point, you could see they started skiing to win, not just skiing to medal,” he said.

Diggins tagged Randall to start the fifth leg, and with her pink streaked blond ponytail peeking out of her headband, Randall broke away with skiers from Norway and Sweden in a lead pack, building a gap of more than 50 meters.

Then it was Diggins’ turn to battle two of the best skiers in the world for the gold. With strong sprinters by her side, she said she knew that “I needed everyone else to get pretty tired if I have a shot.”

Only a disastrous fall — not out of the question, given the U.S. team’s history of bad luck and the steep descents here — was going to keep the Americans off the podium.

Diggins grew up cross-country skiing, joining the Minnesota Youth Ski League at age 4 and then competing as a varsity athlete at Stillwater High School, where cross country meets are held on golf courses around the Twin Cities. She has become a celebrity in her home state, where people have been rising before dawn during the games to watch her race.

Randall, an Alaska native, was the first American woman to break into the elite of international cross-country skiing, and there was a long period in which she was the only woman on the U.S. team. During the first part of her career, she worked selling shoes in a sporting goods store to support herself during the offseasons.

She won the World Cup sprint titles in 2012, 2013 and 2014, and she arrived at the Sochi Olympics widely expected to end the United States’ cross-country medal drought. But, unknown to all but those closest to her, she had strained her back during a 3-1/2-hour practice session before the games. The injury threw off her training, dooming her chances at a medal.

Randall skipped the 2015-16 season to have her first child, then returned to the World Cup circuit in the fall of 2016, toting along her son, Breck.

In the final Wednesday, Randall’s and Diggins’ teammates were on the fence next to the course, urging them on, especially at the end.

“The door has been opened,” Randall said, pointing to the recent success of young skiers at international events. “What I hope this gold medal really means is that those kids dream about being in this position someday, and they really feel it’s possible.”

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