When Sophie Caldwell crossed the finish line in third place in a sprint final in Dresden, Germany, last Saturday, it was the ninth time that an American cross-country skier had finished on a world cup podium this season.
The next day, Caldwell and Ida Sargent added a tenth podium. The two Dartmouth graduates finished third in the Dresden World Cup team sprint. In 28 world cup races to date this season, the U.S. women’s cross-country skiers have finished on the podium in over a third of them.
It’s a continuation of the success that the women’s team began experiencing six years ago — and even earlier than that for the team’s long-time leader, Kikkan Randall.
Now 35 and heading to her fifth Olympic Games, Randall first stood on a world cup podium 11 years ago. And she has helped lead a growing women’s team to the front of the world cup — and world championships.
Since 2009, four different American women have won nine world championship medals — an unprecedented feat in this country. They have become the ultimate team.
Illustrating the team’s improved strength and depth, five different women have claimed world cup podiums this year. In previous years, Randall and 26-year-old Jessie Diggins claimed the bulk of the team’s best results. But now, Sadie Bjornsen, Caldwell and Sargent have joined them. And team veteran Liz Stephen, a talented distance skier nominated to her third Olympic team, is coming into form, as is Rosie Brennan, who is headed to her first Olympics in PyeongChang.
As Randall said recently via email, “It’s been a pretty amazing season for the team, yet it feels so normal now.”
What has led to this new normal?
Talent and hard work are key, as is teamwork. In an individual sport, their strong team bond has helped lift all their individual performances.
Here’s what else is at play.
Success Breeds Success
When Sadie Bjornsen first joined the world cup tour in 2011, Randall was regularly finishing in the top three of sprint races — earning her first of three world cup sprint titles in 2012. The others hoped they could join her. But for most, it seemed like a far-off goal.
Around that time, a young phenom named Jessie Diggins joined the team, and in short order, earned a world cup podium with Randall in a team sprint. Then Diggins and Randall claimed the team sprint world title in 2013. Two years later, Diggins won her first individual world championship medal in the 10-kilometer freestyle (or skate) race, finishing second ahead of American Caitlin Gregg, who earned the bronze medal. Since then, Diggins has become a podium regular. And she won two more world championship medals in 2017.
Most recently, Diggins finished third overall in the Tour de Ski — the first time an American cross-country skier has finished on the podium in the grueling seven-day stage race. She also finished on the podium in two of the seven races (six, after bad weather canceled one).
Sophie Caldwell has claimed seven podium finishes since finishing sixth in the sprint at the 2014 Olympics — the best result to date by an American woman at the Olympic Games. She kicked off the 2018 Tour de Ski by finishing second in the Tour’s first sprint.
Liz Stephen has also had podium success in previous years, and Sargent got her first taste last year when she finished third in the sprint at the PyeongChang test event.
And Randall was back on the podium after taking maternity leave during the 2015-16 season. She earned her third world championship medal last February (bronze in the sprint), then finished third in a freestyle sprint in December but has struggled with a stress reaction in her left foot for the past month.
This year, Sadie Bjornsen has become a podium regular as well. The 28-year-old from Washington state’s Methow Valley won a bronze medal with Diggins at the 2017 world championships. Then this season, she was the first to earn a world cup podium. She finished second in the season’s first sprint race.
“This year, for the first time, every single girl on our team goes into every weekend feeling like they could win a medal,” Bjornsen said. “It’s different than last year. I like to say that I thought I could win a medal [last year]. But it was more like I was confident Jessie was going to win a medal.”
“To have the depth on the team, to have somebody different on the podium, like in the Tour de Ski, it was Sophie and then Sadie and then me, just like boom, boom, boom, one after another,” said Diggins. “That is exactly the very best thing for a team. Everyone is feeding off each other’s successes and motivating each other and lifting each other up.”
The team makes a point of celebrating everyone’s successes, big and small, even as their successes have become regular events. All this celebrating means a lot of toasts, often twice in one weekend.
“It’s cool because everybody, despite the fact that there have been so many podiums, there’s still an equal amount of excitement that you’re sharing with each person,” said Bjornsen. “It always brings the level of our group higher when more people start doing better because they see themselves like, hey, I’m that good too.”
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With the confidence that they now belong on the podium, the U.S. women are racing with fearlessness.
“You get that little bit of success and the confidence then comes, and the way you ski and see yourself in the pack changes,” noted Randall.
Sargent’s racing this year is a good example. A talented sprinter, she scored her first podium finish last February at the Olympic test event. This year, she is at the front attacking in the sprint heats.
“Everybody is putting themselves in a position where they belong at the front,” said Bjornsen. “Everyone is like these fearless fighters. They’re not afraid to try things.”
Experience Is Paying Off
Of the seven women on the A and B team, six have Olympic experience and have been competing full-time on the world cup for over five years. Randall is in her 17th year on the U.S. Ski Team, Stephen her 13th.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time, and some of us who were quite a bit younger a few years ago, like me, Sophie and Sadie, I think that we are getting to the age where now we have quite a bit of experience, so we’re learning in the sprint rounds how to avoid accidents, how to move through the rounds, how to pace,” said Diggins.
Randall has noticed her teammates improved experience and maturity as well.
“Everybody has figured out how to make a good lifestyle and routine here in Europe,” she said. “They’re all approaching it from a super professional level. Everyone kind of knows what works.”
New Wax Truck
Ski wax plays an important role in cross-country skiing — perhaps even more so than in alpine skiing because except for the few downhills encountered on cross-country trails, speed is generated by human effort. The easier that skis glide over snow, the less effort that a skier must exert to go fast. And in classic skiing, kick wax is key for skiers to propel themselves forward.
Waxing is a mix of alchemy, chemistry and a technician’s touch. And the big Nordic teams from Norway and Sweden set up giant tractor-trailer trucks that expand out and up, creating mobile labs at each race venue.
Until this year, the U.S. cross-country ski team’s wax technicians worked in small wax cabins (fashioned from cargo containers) at race venues. They trucked skis, tools and wax to each venue, then unloaded the gear into the “cabins.”
Now, thanks to a grassroots fundraising effort, the U.S. Ski Team has its own wax truck that debuted in December 2017. And the skiers have noticed the improved wax and more collaboration between skiers, wax techs and coaches.
“The classic waxing has taken an enormous turn for the better,” said Bjornsen, who worked hard in the off-season to hone kick wax and her technique. “It has a lot to do with our new wax truck and the ability to have the entire team work together and find the best wax possible.”
In Sochi, Randall was a favorite to win a medal in the sprint, but she did not advance out of the quarterfinals. The team was an outside favorite to medal in the relay but finished eighth.
Going to PyeongChang, the U.S. women are medal contenders in multiple events at the Olympic Games for the first time ever.
Diggins and Stephen have both finished on world cup podiums in the skiathlon (7.5 kilometers of classic skiing followed by 7.5 kilometers of skate skiing). Bjornsen, Caldwell and Sargent have each had top-three finishes in sprint classic races (the sprint alternates between freestyle and classic technique at each Games). Diggins has a world championship silver medal in the 10K freestyle race, and Randall has a world cup 10K podium finish on her resume. Diggins and Randall are world champions in the team sprint (in the freestyle technique, which will be contested in PyeongChang), and multiple women on the team have earned world cup podium finishes in the event.
And the team is most hopeful for a medal in the 4x5-kilometer. They have finished second or third in several world cup relays in the past five years and have finished fourth in the relay at the past three world championships.
“Just making those teams is going to be a challenge with everyone skiing so well,” noted Randall, who still has foot pain but is back racing and hopes to return to form by the Olympics.
“It’s a really cool position to go into the Games with the idea that you can medal,” said Bjornsen. “I think medals, even individual medals, take a team in a good place. If we all go into the Games with this excitement and also some confidence and the same feeling we’ve been having the whole entire year, I think that there are a couple people on our team that will be standing on the podium for sure.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. Her book, “World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team,” is now available on Amazon and at your local bookstore.