Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall celebrate after winning gold in the women's cross-country team sprint free at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 21, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Five years ago, Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins did something that had never been done before. The two American women won a cross-country skiing world championship gold medal in the team sprint.
At the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, the same two American women did one better. They won the first Olympic medal for the U.S. women’s cross-country skiing team — and it was gold.
In a final dash to the line, Diggins passed Sweden’s Stina Nilsson with about a meter to go, threw her ski across the line, then fell into Randall’s arms.
“Did we just win the Olympics?” Diggins gasped as she fell to the ground.
“Yeah!” screamed Randall.
Around them, teammates, U.S. Ski Team staff and fans went wild. “I broke down,” said Luke Bodensteiner, an Olympic cross-country skier back in the 1990s who’s now the U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s chief of sport. “I was on my knees in tears.”
Diggins crossed the finish line in 15:56.47, just 0.19 seconds ahead of Nilsson, who teamed with Charlotte Kalla for the silver medal. Norway’s Marit Bjoergen and Maiken Caspersen Falla took bronze, coming across the finish line an astonishing 2.97 seconds back from the Americans.
On a historic night, Bjoergen, who won her 14th Olympic medal tonight and eighth gold, solidified her spot as the most decorated Winter Olympian ever.
The Americans’ medal performance comes 42 years after Bill Koch won America’s first medal in the sport, a silver — and 46 years after Team USA first fielded a women’s cross-country skiing team at the Olympic Winter Games. Women’s cross-country skiing debuted at the Olympic Winter Games in 1952, but it took 20 years before the U.S. put together a team.
Koch’s medal caused a surge in cross-country skiing in America and helped develop youth racing.
“I know the power that Bill Koch’s medal had from 1976, and I wanted so badly to have a women’s medal to be able to prove to all the girls back home that you can be successful cross-country skiers,” said Randall.
Randall’s journey to this Olympic gold medal began 20 years ago, when she decided to focus on cross-country skiing as a high school kid in Anchorage, Alaska. She first competed in the Olympic Winter Games in 2002 — back when the U.S. team was so weak that they often did not have enough skiers to put together a relay team. An Olympic medal “seemed totally out of the realm of possibility,” said Randall.
But she believed that if she worked hard enough and long enough, that she might just get there. In 2009, she won a silver medal in the sprint freestyle at the world championships. But the sprint at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games was in the classic technique, and Randall is better at freestyle or skate skiing.
Then around 2011, more women committed to full-time skiing on the world cup circuit. The U.S. Ski Team appointed a head women’s coach, Matt Whitcomb, and this small group of women began to excel on the world cup tour.
When asked what was fueling this surge up the rankings, each woman credited teamwork. They created an environment where teamwork — camaraderie, compassion and respect, among other attributes — began helping them all thrive in an individual sport.
Around the same time, a recent high school graduate named Jessie Diggins joined the team. She was a bubbly Minnesotan who did normal kid activities, such as swim team and dance, and got into cross-country skiing because her parents liked the sport.
Then in junior high she joined the high school’s cross-country ski team because many of her friends were on it (in Minnesota, grades 7-12 compete at the cross-country ski state championships).
She was a Minnesota state champion as a high school freshman, then won two more state titles before she graduated in 2010. She likely would have won more had she not contracted food poisoning her eighth grade year, and had the junior world championships not interfered with states another winter. In her bedroom hung a poster of Kikkan Randall.
Diggins was so dominant that people were not predicting if she would win. They predicted by how much.
After graduating from high school in 2010, she decided to see if she could make it as a professional cross-country ski racer, so she deferred admission to Northern Michigan University.
That winter, she burst onto the national scene on a cloudy day in Rumford, Maine, when she won the national sprint title. A year later, in January 2012, in only her third world cup race, Diggins finished second in a world cup team sprint, with Randall.
A year later, Diggins and Randall won the world championship team sprint — a first for the United States.
Randall went to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games as a gold-medal favorite in the sprint. But she struggled through the 2014 Games, and the team finished far off the podium in the 4x5-kilometer as well — even though they had finished on relay podiums in the years leading up to Sochi. The team left Sochi somewhat shocked. But one team that did win a medal in the relay — Finland — credited the Americans. It was the Americans who had showed the Finns how to work like a well-functioning team.
These two events came into play in PyeongChang. First, the Sochi disappointment fueled the team to train even harder in the past four years. Randall, now 35, called it a “blessing in disguise.”
Then she and Diggins, who’s 26, used what they had learned at the 2013 world championships. This time, in PyeongChang, Diggins would anchor the team, Randall would lead off. (In team sprints, each skier skies one lap three times, making it a six-lap race.)
“We knew we needed to ski smart races, stay out of trouble,” said Randall. “We just stuck to that plan today and didn’t really talk too much about what we wanted as the end result. Just go out there and ski like we know we can ski. Then we know we’re in the hunt.”
From the semifinals, it looked like Diggins was out for more than just any Olympic medal. She and Randall won their semifinal and earned Lane 1 in the final.
Then in the final, the Americans got off the front with Norway and Sweden, and they weren’t just following the Scandinavian skiers.
“Watching Kikkan do her [final] leg so well and get us into position where we were going to get a medal, I was just watching that and was like OK, we’re going to try to make it a gold one then, we have nothing to lose,” said Diggins.
It was fitting that the American women’s first Olympic medal came in a team event. Both Randall and Diggins emphasized that this gold medal is as much their teammates as it is theirs.
“I really wanted to make this happen for this team,” Diggins said. “We always said any medal we got was going to belong to the team. It was the team that got us here and gave us this opportunity and pushed us so hard in training all summer long. I just had a lot of belief going into that last lap.”
For Randall, her goal of winning an Olympic medal came in her very last Olympic race, in her fifth Olympic Games.
“I always knew deep down it was possible,” said Randall, who has struggled with tendinitis in her foot since December. “But to save it for my last Olympic race, it’s crazy. It’s the best ending I could have asked for but also bittersweet. This is the moment we dreamed about, and it’s the last one. It was just cool to be able to team up with Jessie and do a team sprint one more time and to make it gold.”
For Whitcomb, who has been the tiller on this team for the past six years, he called the gold medal “an actual fairy-tale coming true.” He kept thinking about the Red Sox when they won the World Series in 2004 and broke an 86-year drought.
“As U.S. skiers and fans, coaches and journalists, we are so familiar with it not working out at the Olympics for us,” he said. “It’s almost spooky. Today, this whole day everybody just believed it could happen.”
And he thought about how Randall had helped bring home gold in her final Olympic race.
“It’s such perfect closure that you read about a lot but nobody really gets to experience it,” Whitcomb said. “You read about it because it happens to a famous person and 15 people publish it. But it doesn't really happen to you or to us or to people around us.
“So for it to actually come true, I honestly do know what people mean when they say they keep waiting to wake up. It does feel like a dream right now.”
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.