On a snowy day in Falun, Sweden, two U.S. cross-country skiers made history by finishing 2-3 in a distance race at the 2015 Nordic World Ski Championships.
One is a former world champion. The other has never finished an international race anywhere near the podium.
Jessie Diggins — the team sprint world champion in 2013 with Kikkan Randall — claimed the silver medal in the women’s 10-kilometer freestyle race behind Charlotte Kalla from Sweden.
Caitlin Gregg, whose best world cup finish to date (in an individual race) was 14th in a 10-kilometer freestyle world cup race in 2010, took the bronze medal.
The reigning Olympic gold medalist in the event, Kalla finished the interval-start race in 25:08.8. Diggins came across the line in 25:49.8, beating Gregg — the reigning national champion — by 5.9 seconds.
It marked the first time Team USA finished with two athletes on a podium at Nordic world championships.
Although Diggins and Randall have medaled at recent Nordic world championships, this was the first time that any U.S. skier has medaled in a distance event at worlds since the days of Bill Koch. The 1976 Olympic silver medalist won a bronze at the 1982 worlds in the 30-kilometer race. (Back then, skiers only competed in the classic style, not freestyle.)
“I could not have imagined it going any better today,” said the effervescent Diggins after the race.
“This was a goal of mine from the beginning of the season,” said Gregg. “I don’t think my expectations were anything other than what I usually go into the race thinking, but I kept the thought that anything is possible. I skied really aggressively, like I was going out for a medal.”
These are the first two medals that the U.S. Nordic ski team has won since the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships opened last week. Diggins, 23, had been aiming to defend her team sprint title on Sunday but came up short, finishing eighth with Sophie Caldwell.
“The team sprint didn’t go as well as I would have liked,” said Diggins, “so I left the start today with a lot of fire.”
Diggins has never thought of herself as a sprinter and in warm-up for the 10-kilometer, told herself, “Why not me?” and “This day belongs to me as much as anyone else, I’ve just got to go out there and give it everything I have and maybe that will be enough for something amazing.”
Still, it was an unexpected medal, and Diggins called it “the best race of my life.”
For 34-year-old Gregg, a 10-kilometer race seems short compared to the distance she has traveled to reach her first world championship podium. Since she graduated from college in 2004, she has won four national titles, competed on three world championship teams and one Olympic team. But she is not listed on the U.S. Ski Team roster.
What Gregg lacks in world cup results, however, she makes up for in perseverance and determination.
Born in New York City, Gregg (nee Compton) moved to Vermont when she was 10 old and began seriously competing in cross-country skiing in high school.
“I started out running and alpine racing,” reads Gregg’s bio on XCSkiLife.com. “But alpine was getting expensive and a friend convinced me to ski cross country. She said it was a blast and all the cute soccer boys were doing it.”
Gregg also wanted to compete in college. But where?
As luck would have it, Gregg’s mother’s dentist was a college roommate with Sten Fjeldheim, the Nordic ski coach for Northern Michigan University. The dentist, Dr. Steve Pittman, told Mrs. Compton about Fjeldheim’s training program and that many NMU skiers made the U.S. team.
At NMU, Gregg immediately made an impression, breaking the course record in her first cross-country running race her freshman year. She had both a huge motor, noted Fjeldheim, and determination and work ethic to match.
“She was the first athlete I’ve had who was an All-American in cross-country running and skiing in the same year,” said Fjeldheim by phone.
Gregg also had world-class teammates at NMU, including Lindsey Weier, Lindsay Williams and Abby Larson, who would make the 2006 U.S. Olympic Team; and 2010 Olympian Morgan Smyth.
Gregg graduated from NMU in 2004 with a B.F.A. in environmental design and moved to Minnesota to help care for her mother, who had moved to St. Paul from Vermont. While her mother battled cancer, Gregg put her Olympic dreams on hold.
But as her mother recovered, she realized that Minnesota was a great place to continue her Nordic ski career.
In 2011, she married Brian Gregg. They formed Team Gregg and continued pursuing their Nordic goals. While Brian made the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team, Caitlin was not named to the team.
She persevered, winning the 2013-14 Super Tour overall title, and with it, world cup start rights for the 2014-15 season’s first period. But she contracted shingles during the fall and was unsure how the season would unfold.
At U.S. nationals in January, she won the 10-kilometer freestyle title and a month ago, was named to the 2015 world championships team. After a month training at altitude in Colorado with Brian, she flew to Sweden. Brian joined her after competing in the American Birkebeiner 51-kilometer race on Saturday.
Caitlin Gregg started the 10-kilometer race in Falun in Bib 3. Snow was forecast for the start, but when Gregg began her race, only tiny flakes were falling. As the race progressed, heavier snow moved in, slowing the course. But Gregg had fast skis and was nearing the finish. Additionally, the favored Norwegians, who have turned waxing into a science, missed the wax and labored on slow skis.
Gregg crossed the finish line in 25:55.7 and had no idea how her time would stand up. The fastest skiers, like Kalla and the Norwegians, would not start until much later. Only after another 20-30 skiers had crossed the finish did Gregg realize that she had skied really fast.
As Diggins, with Bib 37, approached the finish, it suddenly dawned on Gregg that the two women had both had a really good race. Only Kalla, the 49th skier to start, could match their pace.
“This is a huge step for me,” said Gregg. “I’ve been studying and learning from (my teammates). These girls have been able to do this for a couple years, and I’ve been training with them. So anything is possible for any of us any day.”
“This result today, while it’s a lifetime best result, we’ve seen Caitlin ski this way before,” said women’s head coach Matt Whitcomb. “Caitlin is this good at cross-country skiing.”
“It’s the same with Jessie,” he added. “We’ve seen this level of performance. Both of them were able to put it together on the fourth day of world championships.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.