Jessie Diggins participates in the Parade of Athletes at the Closing Ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games 2018 on Feb. 25, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Over two weeks ago, Jessie Diggins was the first member of Team USA to cross the finish line at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. She finished fifth in the skiathlon that night — the first medal-winning event at these Games and, at the time, the best ever finish for the American women in a cross-country skiing race.
In the final competition of the 2018 Games, Diggins — who went on to win Team USA’s first cross-country skiing gold medal with Kikkan Randall — had another best-ever race in the women’s 30-kilometer classic. She finished seventh in 1:25:54.8.
It was the best finish ever for the Americans in an Olympic 30K (classic or freestyle). The previous top result was Nina Kemppel’s 15th place in the 30K classic race at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
At the front of the race, Marit Bjoergen blew the race apart within the first 10 kilometers. In her final Olympic race, the 37-year-old Norwegian finished far out in front in 1:22.17.6 for her second gold medal of these Olympic Winter Games. With 15 Olympic medals — the most won by any Winter Olympian ever — Bjoergen is the Michael Phelps of the Winter Games.
Krista Parmakoski from Finland (1:24:07.1) and Stina Nilsson from Sweden (1:24:16.5) rounded out the medals, with silver and bronze, respectively.
For the Americans, Sadie Bjornsen finished 17th, Rosie Frankowski was 21st in her first major international race, and Caitlin Patterson crossed the line in 26th.
Diggins was unhappy with her 30K race, calling it her worst of the Games. She skied in the lead pack for the first third of the race. But on the warmest day of the Games, the 26-year-old American rolled her boot in the slush beside the ski tracks and crashed. She sprinted to catch back to the group just as Bjoergen surged off the front.
Too gassed to go with the break, Diggins “spent the rest of the time in no man’s land chugging away.”
“I felt like I was just sprinting the entire time,” she said. “I was proud of that. I didn’t give up. I didn’t say OK, I don’t have a chance to medal, I’ll just screw around out here. I really gave it everything I had, and I kept pushing myself. To have my worst race of the Games [be seventh] is beyond my wildest expectations.”
With women’s cross-country ski races book-ending the PyeongChang Games, Diggins concluded her breakout Olympic Games where she started: setting best-ever performances for Team USA.
Diggins competed in every women’s cross-country ski race on the PyeongChang Olympic program. And her team sprint gold medal with Randall was one of the stories of the Games.
After the 30K, Diggins collapsed in the snow in the finish corral, as much to reflect on her second Olympic Winter Games as to give her spent body some rest.
“I was taking a second to appreciate the fact that I’ve gotten the chance to race six times at the Olympics,” she said. “I’ve gotten the chance to spin 77K on these trails. It’s been such a wild ride, so much fun. There’s been a rollercoaster of emotions for sure.”
Beyond the gold medal, Diggins had the best Olympic finishes for American women in every race she entered — with three fifth places in the skiathlon, 10K freestyle and the relay, then the seventh in the 30K. In the sprint, she finished sixth, tying Sophie Caldwell’s best-ever for a U.S. skier in that event.
“I’m really, really proud of how these Games have gone for not just myself but the entire team,” she said. “It’s taken so much work from everyone to make this possible.”
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The PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games were also an impressive showing by American women competing here. Of the 23 medals won by Team USA, U.S. women won 12 and contributed to two more mixed gender events, with the men winning nine. Yet women only made up 44 percent of the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team.
Team USA tied with Canada, the Netherlands and Norway for most medals by women.
The women’s success came on the heels of the 2016 Rio Games, where the U.S. women won 27 of the total 46 medals.
“It’s been so empowering,” said three-time Olympian Meghan Duggan, who led the U.S. women’s ice hockey team to its first Olympic gold medal in 20 years, and a year ago, helped the team negotiate for equal support with the men in USA Hockey.
“Our team has been through so much, specifically the last year, pushing for more gender equity in sport,” Duggan added. “Just so proud to be a woman in society and in the climate these days.”
So what has led to this female power?
Part of it is rooted in Title IX, the landmark legislation in 1972 that mandated equal opportunities for both genders at federally funded institutions. That bill led American colleges and universities to add women’s sports programs to offset their football, soccer and other men’s team offerings. These opportunities filtered down to younger levels, with high schools and local clubs adding girls’ sports.
Societal views of female athletes have also changed markedly in the past few decades. Even as recently as the late 20th century, women were not encouraged, nor did they have opportunities, to pursue athletic careers.
Perceptions of female strength and power have also changed. Strong, muscular physiques among the female gender were once frowned upon.
“For a long time, women who had these attributes were considered the B word, so to speak,” said Elana Meyers Taylor, who claimed her third Olympic medal in women’s bobsled with Lauren Gibbs at the PyeongChang Games. “Now we’re in a society where being strong is embraced, and having muscles is a wonderful thing.”
With the strong female as a role model, more and more girls and young women are excited to pursue sports. As an aspiring ski racer in middle school and high school, Diggins had posters of both Randall and 1976 Olympic silver medalist Bill Koch in her bedroom. She also looked up to the other veterans on the team, such as Liz Stephen.
As Diggins said after the team sprint gold, “I feel really lucky to have had these older sisters and role models. I look up to every single one of them. They really show me what’s possible. They show me that it’s okay to dream really, really big.”
Diggins later ended her second Olympic Games with another dream – carrying the American flag into the Closing Ceremony.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.