Jessie Diggins competes in the cross-country women’s sprint classic quarterfinal at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 13, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The U.S. women’s cross-country skiing team came to PyeongChang poised to win its first ever Olympic medal.
It did not happen in the sprint Tuesday night — a classic event in this Olympic Games (the sprint alternates between classic and freestyle skiing in each Winter Games), and a race held on a course with a long, steep climb.
Jessie Diggins came close, making the final. But she ended up finishing sixth. Until this year, Diggins did not excel in classic races (traditional kick and glide technique).
“Just making the final has been a huge step forward for me,” she said. “If you had told me at the start of the year that I would make the Olympic classic sprint final, I would have been like, ‘Ha, that’s funny, good joke.’”
Sweden’s Stina Nilsson skied away with her first Olympic gold medal. She beat the defending Olympic sprint gold medalist Maiken Caspersen Falla from Norway by over three seconds. Yulia Belorukova, an Olympic Athlete from Russia, rounded out the podium.
Still gassed from a hard effort in the second semifinal, Diggins could not quite keep the pace in the final and finished sixth. It matches the best Olympic finish ever in the sprint by the American women. Sophie Caldwell finished sixth in the freestyle sprint at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014.
Caldwell competed in the 2018 Olympic sprint as well but did not advance out of her semifinal. She ended up eighth.
“Any day you make it into the semifinal is a good day,” Caldwell said. “Of course you always want more, especially at the Olympics. But I think it’s important to take a step back and recognize that that was a really good day, especially in classic sprinting. It’s my best result this season.”
Caldwell came to PyeongChang ranked third in the world cup sprint rankings. She has finished on the podium in three sprints and one team sprint so far this season. But those sprints have been in the freestyle technique.
In the past couple of decades, the U.S. skiers have traditionally been strongest in freestyle races.
Sadie Bjornsen — who has also had a handful of world cup podiums this season and won a bronze medal with Diggins in the classic team sprint at 2017 world championships — also made the sprint heats. But she did not advance out of her quarterfinal heat.
“It didn’t go as I dreamed,” she said, yet she was still smiling.
None of the American women were crushed by another medal opportunity that eluded them. It was the second (of six) cross-country ski races at these Olympics. And as Diggins said, the team’s sprint results “show some good things to come.”
Diggins is the strongest medal contender on the team, which she demonstrated with her fifth-place finish in the skiathlon on Saturday night — the best finish ever at the Olympic Games by an American woman — and her sixth place in the sprint final.
“I’m really happy with where my shape is overall and where my form is,” she said. “For sure, I was crumbling a little bit on that last monster climb and working hard to keep it upright and keep it together [during the sprint]. But I went after it with everything I had. I really dug deep and pushed myself hard. I’m really proud of this race today. It was a good one for me.”
“Jessie always has energy,” added Caldwell with a laugh. “I’ve never seen her run out of energy. She’s doing great, and the fact that she made it to the final of a classic sprint, which isn’t as uncommon for her anymore, but I think that means she’s in a good place. It’s pretty awesome.”
A medal opportunity could come for Diggins in the 10-kilometer freestyle race (on Thursday) — a race in which she won a silver medal at the 2015 world championships. She is also a world champion in the freestyle team sprint, a two-person event (next Wednesday). And she has finished on the world cup podium in race distances from sprints to 10Ks.
“Regardless of the distance or the technique, Jessie is a medal contender, which is really incredible,” said Caldwell.
The team is especially looking forward to the 4x5-kilometer on Saturday, which Diggins is likely to anchor. This team of American women that has coalesced in the past six years has become a powerhouse in team events like the relay. They feed off each other’s energy and want to do well for each other.
“I think we’re definitely knocking on the door of a medal,” said Caldwell. “I think we’re very capable of getting one.”
Caldwell sees it as an honor — not an annoyance — to field questions about their medal potential after every race in PyeongChang.
“The fact that people are asking means that we’ve proven that we’re capable of it,” she said. “I think we’ve come a long way.
“Whether it happens or not, I’m proud to be part of this team and proud of how far we’ve come.”
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.