QUEBEC CITY — The cross-country skiing World Cup Finals in front of an almost-home crowd did not go the way that the U.S. women’s team had hoped. But the three-day mini tour just north of the border capped one of the best seasons ever for the team.
|Jessie Diggins skis to first place at the Tour de Ski on Jan. 8, 2016 in Toblach, Italy.|
Led by Jessie Diggins — who earned three world cup podiums and two world championship medals this season — six different American women earned podium finishes, including Sadie Bjornsen, who made her first world cup podium and won her first world championship medal (bronze in the team sprint with Diggins) this winter.
“Each year a new person on the team is discovering their podium potential and that they belong here,” said Bjornsen, 27, who finished the Quebec City World Cup Finals mini-tour in 10th overall — the best American finish.
In addition to Bjornsen, Ida Sargent also scored her first world cup podium this season — in the PyeongChang Olympic test event.
In Quebec City, Rosie Brennan qualified for the sprint quarterfinals on Friday. It was the first time in her career that she made the heats. And 19-year-old Julia Kern, who helped the U.S. women earn a bronze medal in the relay at the junior world championships, also qualified for the sprint heats on Friday, earning points for a top-30 finish in her first world cup.
“It’s crazy the lift that it does to the whole group to see that,” Bjornsen added. “I think our team carries confidence but we also have some direction. We talk a lot about what we can do to improve together.”
For Diggins, her 2016-17 season started with a 5-kilometer freestyle win in a mini-tour in Lillehammer, Norway, in early December. Then later in December, she finished with two top-five finishes in a 15K freestyle race, then a sprint — a glimpse at her diversity in the sport. Then in the eight-day-long Tour de Ski, the 25-year-old won the 5K freestyle, finished second in the skiathlon and ended up fifth overall — her best ever finish in the Tour.
In February, at the 2017 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships, Diggins won a silver medal in the freestyle sprint and bronze in the classic team sprint, bringing her world championship medal collection to four (she won a gold in the team sprint in 2013 and a silver in the 10K freestyle in 2015). No American Nordic skier has won more.
Diggins, who became ill during the Quebec City mini-tour, finished in 16th place. But she finished the season ranked sixth overall in the world cup, her best ranking in her six years racing at this level.
“I have been really lucky to have [my best season],” said Diggins, who was quick to credit the team behind her, including coaches, wax technicians, and other support staff. “You don’t get anywhere by yourself.”
She was also happy to end her season in front of American-flag-waving fans, many who drove up from the New England area.
“There’s like a million little kids wearing striped socks, glitter on their faces, flags, cheering, jumping up and down; that is so cool to see because I feel like having a good season is one thing, and you’re psyched to get the results, but having them mean something and inspire people and seeing these little kids get fired up about it, that’s the most meaningful part,” she added, referring to the red-white-and-blue striped socks and face paint that the American women wear in team events. “It keeps me inspired to work hard for next year.”
|Kikkan Randall poses for a portrait with her medal at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships on March 5, 2017 in Lahti, Finland.|
Although Kikkan Randall did not race in Quebec City because she was not feeling well, the 34-year-old ski legend also had a successful season after the birth of son Breck. She slowly regained race form throughout this season. Then 10 months after giving birth, she won a bronze medal in the sprint at world championships in late February.
Veteran Liz Stephen, 30, also sat out the Quebec City races. She had two top-three world cup finishes this year.
Sophie Caldwell ended the mini-tour in 36th. But the Quebec City races brought back fond memories of her first world cup race here in December 2012. It was a sprint, and she qualified for the quarterfinals — a remarkable feat for a world cup neophyte.
This time, it was her Stratton Mountain School T2 elite teammate Julia Kern’s first world cup.
“Friday, Julia told me during her [sprint] qualifier, all she was thinking was, ‘Sophie qualified in her first world cup, so can I,’” Caldwell said. “That almost made me start crying.”
Caldwell crashed in her sprint quarterfinal on Friday — another disappointing result for the former world cup winner. In nine sprints this season, she has crashed in a third of them. But she finished third in a team sprint (paired with Sargent) in PyeongChang World Cup in February, and she was happy to end the season ranked 11th overall in sprinting.
“The fact that I want more after a season like this means that we’ve come a long way,” said Caldwell, “and I’m looking forward to next year.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.