Jessie Diggins competes in the women's cross-country skiathlon at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 10, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — When Jessie Diggins was little, she would chirp “super speed” into her dad’s ear, as he cross-country skied through Minnesota’s countryside.
Today, Diggins showed the world that she’s got some “super speed” too.
On a snow-covered golf course in PyeongChang, Diggins, 26, battled to fifth place in the women’s skiathlon – the highest Olympic finish ever for a U.S. women's cross-country skier. Sophie Caldwell was sixth in the sprint in 2014.
In the hunt the entire race, Diggins finished only 4.6 seconds from winning an Olympic medal.
“It was really cool being seconds away from a medal, and seeing it right there,” Diggins said. “I know it’s possible. I know I have what it takes.”
Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla broke away from a pack of six skiers in the final kilometers of the race and claimed the gold medal. Norwegian Marit Bjoergen and Krista Parmakoski of Finland won silver and bronze, respectively.
It was Bjoergen’s 11th Olympic medal, making her the most decorated female winter Olympian ever. Bjoergen and Kalla won gold and silver, respectively, at the 2014 Olympics.
For Diggins, it was an impressive race from the start. She stuck with the leaders for the first 7.5-kilometer classic leg (the skiathlon is a 7.5K leg in the classic discipline followed by a triathlon-like transition to a 7.5K freestyle or skate leg). Until recently, Diggins has been a stronger freestyle skier but has worked hard on her classic (kick and glide) skiing in the past few years.
“Really impressive race for Jessie,” said Chris Grover, U.S. head coach. “For her to be in contact after the classic leg is just a massive step and she was really able to ski pretty easily with those women.
“Obviously a tough battle in the skate by all those women. But for her to finish just under five seconds from the podium and finish fifth, which is our best ever women’s finish at the Olympics, we’re really excited for her.”
Diggins was excited for better races to come — and to have her second Olympic Games underway. She was so nervous before the skiathlon start that she vomited. And she struggled to eat in the days leading up to the skiathlon. During the race, she struggled to shake out a cramp in her right tricep muscle.
“I have a few things I’m going to dial in this week, trying to figure out fueling and hydration for these late afternoon races,” she said. “I think when I get that dialed and make sure my body is ready to push when I demand it to be pushed, then I think I’m going to really be able to start putting together the results I’m hoping for.”
Diggins came to PyeongChang with momentum, having won the final pre-Games world cup race — a 10-kilometer freestyle mass start — in Seefeld, Austria.
She also finished third overall in the 2018 Tour de Ski in early January — the best finish ever by an American.
In a pre-Games press conference, she hinted at how the cross-country ski races might play out here in PyeongChang. She joked that skiing on golf courses is to her liking. She grew up skiing on the rolling snow-covered fairways and greens in her native Minnesota.
Ever the team player, Diggins was quick to credit her team, including coaches and wax technicians, for preparing great skis for her.
She has often said that her favorite races are the team events (4x5-kilometer and team sprint). Her top finish in skiathlon, an individual event, bodes well for the team events later at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
Also competing for the U.S. in the skiathlon, Caitlin Patterson finished 34th, five-time Olympian Kikkan Randall was 40th and Rosie Brennan came in 58th.
Randall tried to stay with the leaders from the start. But on the long, steep climb from the stadium, her muscles flooded with lactic acid.
“The race wasn’t as going as well for me,” she said. “I was peeking over to make sure Jessie was still in the mix and was happy to see her up front. Her day is coming for sure.”
Brennan, who has struggled with illness for the past month, was disappointed in her own race but happy for Diggins.
“I’m not surprised,” Brennan said of Diggins’ fifth place. “I think there’s a lot more to come from everybody on the team. It’s good to kick off [the Olympic Games] with something good.”
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. Her new book, "World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team," depicts the rise of the American women, including Jessie Diggins.