Jessie Diggins, Sadie Bjornsen and Kikkan Randall pose for a portrait at the Team USA Media Summit ahead of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Sept. 27, 2017 in Park City, Utah.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – The U.S. women’s cross-country skiing team is entering the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 as a favorite to win its first-ever Olympic medal.
Kikkan Randall, long the standard bearer for the U.S. team — with three world championship medals, three world cup sprint titles, 34 world cup podium finishes and 14 world cup victories — was a favorite to win a medal in the sprint at the 2014 Olympic Games but came up short.
Now, Randall is joined by 10 other women in PyeongChang, many of whom could win medals in multiple events. It’s the strongest contingent of female American cross-country skiers ever to compete in an Olympic Winter Games.
Of the 11, seven have stood on a world cup podium at least once in their careers. This season alone, five different women have had that honor. And three of them have won world championship medals in their careers.
Sadie Bjornsen has three top-three finishes this season in distances from sprints to a 10-kilometer classic race. And she and Jessie Diggins won the bronze medal in the team sprint at the 2017 world championships.
Randall finished third in a world cup sprint in December.
Sophie Caldwell has four podium finishes in sprint races this year, including a win in the final sprint before the PyeongChang Games.
Ida Sargent — who arrived in PyeongChang last week with a surgically repaired thumb — finished third in a team sprint with Caldwell in mid-January.
And Diggins finished third overall in the Tour de Ski — the best finish ever by an American in the multi-day race. She then won the final world cup (a 10-kilometer freestyle race) before the Olympic Games. At the 2017 world championships, she won two medals — a silver in the sprint and bronze in the team sprint. She also has a gold medal from 2013 worlds (team sprint) and a silver from 2015 worlds (10K freestyle).
“Every single person on our team believes that on any single day, anyone can stand on the podium,” said Bjornsen in a pre-Games press conference. “When you put a lot of people who are super determined together, and have some confidence and belief behind them, you can really accomplish anything in the world.”
It’s a team that has thrived on a supportive team atmosphere. They travel the world cup tour as a family and have brought a joie de vivre to the tour, painting their faces with U-S-A and glitter for relays and team sprints, making dance videos, and the like.
During a pre-Games camp in Seefeld, Austria, they played the game of spoons, took walks and watched TV together. It sounds like a big family gathering during the holidays, and it’s a vibe that has worked.
“When we have fun, that’s when we’re dangerous on the race course because that’s when we race fast,” said Diggins.
They have remained a close team, even as they vie with each other for start spots in each race. In the four individual races in PyeongChang — skiathlon, classic sprint, 10K freestyle and 30K classic races — the U.S. can only field four skiers per race.
“It’s been an incredible transformation of our team,” said Randall, now a five-time Olympian. “We used to be lucky just to field a team and now we have many women who can be a podium threat on any given day.”
Instead of trying to one-up each other for the coveted start spots, the women talk in pre-race meetings about how they have pushed each other in workouts and how it has made everyone on the team stronger.
“Really buying into the fact that no matter who has success on a given day, we’ve all been a part of that,” added Randall. “I think we’ve really dealt well with the difficult dynamic that can come with competing directly with your teammates.”
They take pride in each other’s successes and celebrate everyone’s victories and improvements.
“That creates a really healthy team environment where you’re not fearing someone else doing better than you,” added Diggins. “You’re happy for them, and you’re proud of them because you know you were a part of that journey with them.”
The women’s skiathlon is the first medal event at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. Diggins has had world cup success in skiathlons, with a second-place finish last year in the Tour de Ski.
For years, it was Randall who was the favorite to win an Olympic medal. Now it might be one of her teammates.
“I wanted to be the first to win an Olympic medal,” said Randall. “But most importantly, I wanted to show that it was possible. If one of my teammates shows it’s possible, that’s a victory in my mind.”
“I know I’ve helped push these girls,” she added. “So if one of them is standing on the victory podium, I’m going to be cheering for them because I know I’ve helped be a part of it.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games, PyeongChang is her fifth. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.