LAHTI, Finland — Jessie Diggins came to the 2017 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships to win medals. Now the 25-year-old American cross-country skier has four.
Diggins and Sadie Bjornsen won bronze in the classic team sprint, with Diggins edging out fourth-place finisher Sweden at the line by 0.19 seconds.
Norway defended its team sprint world title in a time of 20:20.56, with Russia earning silver in 20:26.12. The U.S. finished in 20:38.94.
“Team events bring out the best in me,” said Diggins. “I could have never skied like that if it was just for myself. But when I know a teammate is counting on me, giving up is not an option, so I just kept fighting all the way to the finish.”
It was Bjornsen’s first world championships medal, and emotion caught up with the 26-year-old cross-country skier during the press conference when she confessed that she wanted to cry.
“It’s so neat because I’ve been dreaming of being on a team sprint at world championships or the Olympics for a while now,” Bjornsen said, with tears not yet streaming through the glittery U-S-A and American flag painted on her cheeks.
It was Diggins’ second medal of this world championships and fourth of her careerver. In 2013, she and Kikkan Randall won the team sprint (in the freestyle technique that year). Then at the 2015 worlds, Diggins finished second in the 10-kilometer freestyle.
With four medals, Diggins is now the most decorated American cross-country skier at world championships. Randall has three medals. Bill Koch won a silver medal at the 1976 Olympic Winter Games and a bronze at the 1982 world championships. Nordic combined skier Billy Demong won four world championships medals, and two Olympic medals, during his career.
For Diggins, her medals won in the team sprints mean the most — “because it means so much to be firing on all cylinders with the same person on the same day.”
The American women began finishing on the podium in the team sprint starting in December 2011, when Bjornsen paired with Randall in a freestyle (diagonal stride) sprint. With a second place at that world cup, Bjornsen became the first American to stand on a world cup cross-country podium other than Randall and Alison Owen-Spencer who won the inaugural women’s world cup race in 1978.
A month later, Diggins’ first world cup podium also came in a freestyle team sprint. She too was paired with Randall.
But neither Bjornsen nor Diggins had contested a team sprint in two years. The event is held only one or twice each season, and other American women had competed in those events in 2017.
Bjornsen last competed in a team sprint in January 2015, Diggins at the 2015 world championships, where she and Sophie Caldwell finished eighth.
The team sprint is held at every world championships, in either the freestyle or classic (kick and glide) discipline. It was a freestyle event in both 2013 and 2015, and a classic event in 2011, when Bjornsen paired with Randall, and the pair finished ninth.
Of her four world championship medals, Diggins said that she is most excited about this bronze medal because she and Bjornsen won it in a classic race. Diggins’ other world championship medals — and almost all of her world cup podiums — came in freestyle races, with three coming in a 5K freestyle world cup held in Toblach, Italy.
“I don’t want to be just a skater or just a 5K skater,” she said. “I want to be able to do it all and do it with my team and do it for the team. This is really pretty special for us.”
Before the race, the two were joking that they were the dark horses and that they might surprise everyone.
“It was almost magical for Jessie and me because maybe the world was not aware that we could be a threat in [classic skiing],” added Bjornsen.
The six-lap race began with Bjornsen, a strong classic skier, jumping into third place on the climb out of the stadium. At the end of her lap, she tagged Diggins in first place. But Diggins struggled on the steepest section of the climb and became tangled with the Swedish skier. She fell back to sixth place, behind Norway, Finland, Sweden, Russia and Germany.
“I have faith that Sadie will keep us in there,” she told herself.
For the next four laps, Bjornsen and Diggins remained in fifth or sixth place, falling a bit behind on the steepest section of the climb, then reeling in the leaders on a flat section before the downhill back to the stadium.
Even back in sixth place, both women knew they were still fighting for a medal.
“We believed,” said Diggins.
Women’s coach Matt Whitcomb was not as confident.
“But I wasn’t feeling unconfident either,” he said. “We figured Norway was going to run away with it. But beyond that, we thought that we would have a shot at anything from second to 10th.”
When he saw that both Diggins and Bjornsen were able to respond to the challenges thrown down by Norway, he began to realize that they “could be in this.”
“You start playing out the options about halfway through the race, and you start seeing the possibilities,” he said. “You start seeing how people’s fitness is on that very day, and it felt good to watch pretty early on.”
On the final lap, Diggins moved into fourth place on the steep hill. Then with fast skis, she caught Sweden on the final downhill and sling-shot past her in the final turn.
“In the final 100 meters, I kept thinking, ‘I can, I can, I can because Sadie needs me,’” said Diggins. “It was really cool because I never could have done that if this girl wasn’t waiting for me at the finish.”
Then she added: “That’s the power of team.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.