In the past month, the U.S. women’s cross-country ski team has finished on the podium in four separate world cup races.
Sophie Caldwell started the streak, winning a classic sprint race during the Tour de Ski in early January. Two days later, Jessie Diggins won a 5-kilometer freestyle world cup race — also part of the Tour de Ski.
Diggins stepped on the podium again in late January, finishing third in the Nove Mesto world cup 10-kilometer freestyle. A day later, she anchored the U.S. women to second place in a 4x5-kilometer event — the U.S.’ best-ever finish in a team relay.
In a sport long dominated by Scandinavians, the U.S. women have found a way to throw a wrench into the Norwegian machine. Remarkably, they are doing it without long-time team leader Kikkan Randall, whose first child is due in April.
Talent, hard work and fast skis are the foundations of their success. But it takes something more to step onto the world cup podium. Here are other reasons why Caldwell and Diggins, as well as teammates Sadie Bjornsen, Liz Stephen, Ida Sargent, Caitlyn Gregg and Rosie Brennan are consistent podium threats this season.
1. They Believe In Winning
Diggins burst onto the world cup tour four years ago at age 20. In only her second race, she finished second with Randall in a team sprint. A year later, Diggins and Randall were team sprint world champions.
But Diggins, 24, had never finished on the podium in an individual world cup or world championship race until last year. At the 2015 world championships, she won a silver medal in the 10-kilometer freestyle.
“With each great result, you build confidence and eventually you get to a threshold where you can start to envision yourself actually winning the race,” explained women’s head coach Matt Whitcomb. “When an athlete switches from just admiring those who win the races and having them be their heroes to actually starting to think that they themselves might be able to win, a pretty big change happens.”
That change happened to Diggins this year.
“I’m racing like I know I’ve already won the race,” she said by phone from Norway.
Caldwell, 25, has also built confidence through results. In December, she was inching closer, with several top-10 finishes. Then she won the classic sprint in early January.
The key, she said, is “approaching each race as a new race, knowing that you could be on the top that day and going into it with confidence and skiing as if you’re meant to be in that final.”
2. Knowing Rest Is Key
Rest has never been a big part of Jessie Diggins’ day. Just ask her preschool teacher.
“I can’t really sit still for that long,” Diggins recently wrote on her website.
Which meant naptime was always a problem. Her preschool teacher told her that she didn’t have to nap, but she had to stay on her mat.
“So, naturally, I would get bored and start doing gymnastics on my mat, trying to turn somersaults without actually putting a toe off the edge,” she wrote.
Most days, she was sent to the “isolation room” with a coloring book.
This year, Diggins is finally giving rest its due. She takes naps and no longer trains herself into the ground during the race season.
For her part, Caldwell has worked on recharging between races and managing her energy.
3. Staying Healthy And Happy
Last season, Caldwell was slowed by off-season injuries. She broke both elbows in two separate accidents and came into the 2014-15 season without ideal training.
“This year, I managed to keep all my bones intact,” she said.
She’s also avoided illness.
“There wasn’t anything special or magic about (my off season training),” she said. “But staying healthy probably had a lot to do with it.”
4. Details Matter
To win the sprint race in early January, Caldwell moved into the lead on a tricky descent, then — with two Norwegians and a Swede charging behind her — had to lunge at the finish line.
Caldwell had no idea that she had won until Ida Ingemarsdotter, the Swedish racer, congratulated her.
Lunging for the finish line was a move that Caldwell practiced between sprint heats that day.
“She was in the mix all day long, right on the heels of the athletes leading the heats, so we knew she’d be right there. But right there can translate to either first or sixth when it comes to the final,” said Whitcomb. “Her attention to detail practicing that lunge won the race for her.”
5. Teamwork Makes The Dream Work
For several years, the U.S. women have credited great teamwork for their successes. They have been a family, cheering each other on, working together, and knowing that if one teammate can do well, then everyone else can too. Above all, they respect each other.
But how have they created such a harmonious team?
Most of the women credit both Randall, a role model who has taught them to believe in themselves, and Coach Whitcomb.
“The real key is that everyone wants the team to work,” said Whitcomb.
To make the team work, he encourages them to be good teammates.
“You have 10 women on the team,” he explained. “There’s just no way that every personality is going to be harmonious. You’re not going to naturally be best friends with everybody on the team. So we talk about how being a great teammate is so much more impressive than being a great friend because we get to choose our friends, but you are told who your teammates are.”
“Matt encourages everyone to look out for each other, to train together, to work together, to push each other and raise the level of American skiing,” added Diggins. “If you don’t click, who cares if you win a race if no one wants to celebrate with you?”
They celebrate others’ successes and know that if a teammate does well in a race, then they can too.
“I think one of the cool things about our team right now is that we’re strong in basically every single discipline on any given day, whether it’s a skate distance race or a classic sprint, we have someone who could be on the podium,” said Caldwell. “And that’s something to be proud of.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.