U.S. Cross Country Ski Relay Makes History
The United States of America put on a man on the moon 43 summers ago.
You wouldn't think, really, that it would take until Sunday to put four American women on the podium in a World Cup cross country relay ski race for the very first time.
Jessie Diggins, the American anchor, outsprinted Marthe Kristoffersen of Norway II as the U.S. women's 4 x 5k relay team claimed third place Sunday at the World Cup relay in Gaellivare, Sweden.
It just goes to show you two things:
One, nothing is impossible. Americans genuinely can excel at cross country skiing.
Two, when Americans make something a priority, they are as good at it as anybody in the world. This is the lesson of the U.S. Nordic combined team at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, and this is what the U.S. cross country team is aiming to show the world in Sochi in 2014.
"We skied our hearts out and I am so proud to be a part of something this big," Diggins said.
Norway I won, in a time of 45.32.2; Sweden took second, in 45.51.6.
The Americans: 46.00.4.
Norway II: 46.00.9, just five-tenths of a second behind.
All the signs were there for this on Saturday, when Kikkan Randall finished third in the 10k and Holly Brooks fifth. Liz Stephen had been among the race leaders but broke a pole and ended up 21st.
Randall was last year's World Cup sprint champion.
She and Brooks, in an interview late Saturday, had talked about how so much was changing.
You can see it, they said, in attitudes, and not just within the U.S. team -- where there is the absolute, unconditional belief that they can win -- but from others, and in particular the Scandinavians, who long had dismissed the Americans.
Now, both said, other teams wanted to know whether the Americans would be interested in training with them.
That never used to happen, they said.
That, they said, is a sure sign of emerging respect.
You can see it, too, in resource -- with, for instance, the physical therapist now traveling with the U.S. team. That never used to happen, either.
The previous U.S. women's relay best had been a fifth -- last winter at Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. But that was without Randall, who was out for that race.
Even so, the Americans started Sunday in bib 3, on the front line, with Norway I and Sweden. "Some people at the race today were skeptical that we could put together the four world-class relay legs that it takes to reach the podium in this women's field," the U.S. head coach, Chris Grover, said. "But the women handled the pressure, and did it."
Brooks went first, skiing the first of the two classic legs. She skied solidly, 11.2 seconds out, in eighth place.
Randall then skied the fastest classic leg of the day. She moved the Americans up into second, 8.2 seconds back of Norway I.
As the race moved to freestyle, Stephen got the Americans to within 4.2 seconds of Norway I.
Diggins went out knowing that Sweden's anchor, Charlotte Kalla, the Vancouver 2010 10k gold medalist, would probably overtake her. Which Kalla did.
The idea was to hold on to third place.
Kristoffersen actually caught Diggins. Together, they climbed the final hill into the stadium.
Diggins would later tell fasterskier.com, which specializes in coverage of cross country and biathlon: "At the end I could really feel it. I thought, I do no want to lose us a medal here, the girls and the team, the whole team worked so hard this year. I'm not going to screw this up right now. I was able to get just enough energy to get to the end. And then I thought I was going to die. I think I might have been crying."
After Diggins collapsed onto the snow, the other Americans spent maybe 10 minutes in the finish area. There were hugs. There were tears. The TV cameras couldn't get enough.
Later, Stephen told FIScrosscountry.com, "I have always looked at the TV and seen people crying after big races. I didn't understand that feeling until today."