How The U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team Keeps Such A Close Bond On The Road To (Hopefully) Olympic Glory

By Peggy Shinn | Nov. 21, 2017, 3:13 p.m. (ET)
(L-R) Kikkan Randall, Jessie Diggins and Sadie Bjornsen pose for a portrait with their medals at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships on March 5, 2017 in Lahti, Finland.

 

A picture is worth a thousand words.

In the past few months, the seven women on the U.S. cross-country skiing team have found this saying to be especially true.

It’s a team that thrives on closeness. But the women spent much of the summer apart, training in locations from Vermont to Alaska to Sweden. To stay close, they began an iCloud photo sharing stream. It’s different than Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media because the photo stream is private — only for team members and their coach, Matt Whitcomb.

“For whatever reason, it keeps us so well connected because it’s a personal thing,” said Sadie Bjornsen, who won a bronze medal in the team sprint with Jessie Diggins at the 2017 world championships last February. “Whereas if you tried to follow your teammates on social media, you sometimes can’t see the friend in there.”

Social media is where athletes tend to show their professional sides.

“This photo stream has been really helpful because I feel like I can follow where people are, and I can see the real them,” she added. “You see goofy, hilarious things.”

And if she has not seen a teammate share a photo in a while, she checks in with them.

Bjornsen’s favorite photo that she shared recently? A picture of her new nephew, Carter.

“That’s real life right there, that’s not sport,” she said. “I think everybody strives to have some real life among their very focused sporting life. That’s what the photo stream is.”

Download the Team USA app today for breaking news, Olympic and Paralympic team bios, videos and more.

“You see a random mix of things,” added Kikkan Randall, a three-time world championship medalist aiming for her fifth Olympic Games. “Sometimes, it’s training shots. Sometimes it’s what Matt’s nephew is doing. So it’s a great way to get a glimpse into what everyone is up to.”

It’s the latest team-building tool from a group of athletes that, over the past half-dozen years, has used teamwork to elevate everyone’s performance in an individual sport. They have done everything from wearing Pippi Longstocking striped socks in relays to making music videos.

For the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Diggins — a four-time world championship medalist, the most for any U.S. cross-country skier — is dreaming of the entire U.S. Ski & Snowboard Olympic team dancing in a choreographed music video.

“I know Mikaela [Shiffrin] dances, I know Lindsey Vonn can probably get down,” Diggins said, with her easy laugh. “We come to the Olympics as one team, I want to see everyone having fun beforehand.”

The U.S. women have never won an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing. Sophie Caldwell’s sixth place in the freestyle sprint at the 2014 Sochi Games is the closest they have come. Randall and Caitlin (Compton) Gregg also finished sixth in the team sprint at the 2010 Olympics.

The women aim to change this at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, and they will head to PyeongChang in February with impressive credentials: Every woman on the A team has stood on the world cup podium, and three of them won four medals at the 2017 world championships. And they finished fourth together in the world championship relay.

“We medaled in one third of all the events [at 2017 world championships],” said Diggins. “We definitely have a shot [at an Olympic medal in PyeongChang]. It’s not this crazy pipe dream anymore. It’s real. It’s attainable.”

Randall hopes to cap her storied career — 33 world cup podium finishes and 14 wins, three world cup sprint titles, and three world championship medals over 17 seasons — with an Olympic medal. Then after the 2018 season, she and husband Jeff Ellis, along with son Breck (now 18 months old) plan to move to Penticton, British Columbia. Ellis has a job with Swagman, a bike rack company in the south-central town in B.C.

“I’ve always dreamed of ending my career on an Olympic year,” Randall said. “So it’s pretty neat to be able to do it this year. I feel strong and ready to go for one more Olympics first.”

Randall, Diggins, Bjornsen, Caldwell, Liz Stephen, Ida Sargent and Rosie Brennan begin their 2017-2018 season in Ruka — a village in northeastern Finland — on Friday, with a world cup mini-tour. The tour starts with a classic sprint on Friday, a 10-kilometer classic race on Saturday, and a 10K freestyle pursuit.

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. Her book, World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team, is due out in early 2018.