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One For The History Books: How Cross-Country Skiers Jessie Diggins & Rosie Brennan Dominated This Year’s Tour De Ski

By Peggy Shinn | Jan. 14, 2021, 2 p.m. (ET)

Jessica Diggins celebrates during the COOP FIS Cross-Country Stage World Cup Women's 10 km Free Mass Start on Jan. 9, 2021 in Val Di Fiemme, Italy.

 

On Sunday, Jessie Diggins crossed the finish line at the summit of the grueling Alpe Cermis—with extended pitches over 20 percent—raised her arms in victory, then collapsed to the snow. It was the end of the eight-day 2021 FIS Tour de Ski, and Diggins had just become the first American—the first skier outside Europe—to win this prestigious cross-country skiing stage race.

“This has been a career-long goal, one of those lifetime goals,” Diggins said by Zoom the evening that she won. “It just feels incredible.”

Behind Diggins, Rosie Brennan finished the Tour sixth overall—her best finish ever. Brennan’s previous best finish was 15th last season.

It was the first time two American cross-country skiers finished the Tour in the top six. And for several days, Diggins—a 2018 Olympic champion—and Brennan were 1-2 in the standings. 

It was like watching American Greg LeMond win the 21-stage Tour de France in 1986, with fellow American Andy Hampsten in fourth.

“It feels like one of the most important results, and it certainly is one of the most impressive accomplishments,” head U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb told Fasterskier.com. “I think it’s a more competitive event than what [Jessie] accomplished in the Olympics, although the Olympics of course is impossible to beat. The impact of this is so huge because of the effort that goes into it.”

The Tour win catapulted Diggins into the overall world cup lead, with Brennan—the former overall leader—now in third. Brennan remains the world cup leader in distance races, with Diggins in second place.

So what went into Jessie’s win and Rosie’s great performance? Besides talent and hard work.

It Takes A Team
Asked what she was feeling after her historic win, Diggins said gratitude.

“Our [ski] techs delivered such amazing skis every single race,” said Diggins, referring to the ski technicians who tune and wax skis for each race. “That was key. You cannot have a day where you don’t have competitive skis, and you can’t have a day where your body falls apart, and you can’t have a day where your mind isn’t in it. You just have to have it on all the time, which makes it so incredibly grueling and draining and almost an impossible goal.”

In the eight stages, Diggins finished on the podium six times, including two wins, with Brennan on the podium twice.

Good weather also played a part. Cold temperatures and natural snow made for ideal waxing conditions.

“The conditions were relatively easy to wax for and that made the Tour really fair,” explained U.S. coach Jason Cork. “You didn’t see any country have one day where they just had terrible skis and it took their whole team out of contention. If you win on a really easy waxing Tour, then you actually are the best. Everyone could perform [at their best] every day.”

Diggins also credited her teammates—Brennan, Hailey Swirbul (18th), Katharine Ogden (23th), Caitlin Patterson (34th), Julia Kern (38th), and Sophie Caldwell Hamilton, who withdrew after the first three stages—with helping her win. 

Brennan and Swirbul had each had career-bests leading up to the Tour—two wins in December for Brennan and Swirbul had had her first world cup podium finish. And Brennan started the Tour with the overall world cup and distance leads.

“It’s cool to be part of such a positive, uplifting team when the team has got this great momentum going,” said Diggins.

While her win is important, Diggins reiterated that success is not just about results. 

“What I’m so proud of is the environment that we have on the team,” she explained. “It’s so positive, and that keeps things rolling. People are psyched to be here and to be doing the Tour.”

Managing Pressure
For half the Tour, Diggins and Brennan sat 1-2 in the standings, and there was hope that the two Americans would sweep the Tour’s top two spots. 

But pressure in a cross-country ski stage race is immense, and bad luck looms like an unwanted party guest. A fall or crash, bad wax, a poor night’s sleep, illness sneaking up on a fatigued athlete, the list of possible calamities is endless. The eight races are varied distances—from sprints to 10 kilometers—and are held in both techniques (classic and freestyle).

“With Rosie in the overall world cup lead, it kind of shared the pressure a little bit,” said Cork, who is Diggins’s long-time coach. “It’s nice to be like, ‘We’re doing great, it’s not like all the pressure is on my shoulders. If I botch this, the U.S. is not going to be out of contention.’”

For Diggins, the hardest stage was the 10km classic mass start race last Friday. Going into the race, she was 22 seconds ahead of Brennan and almost a minute ahead of Russia’s Yulia Stupak, who sat in third. By that point, Diggins realized that, if all went well, she could actually win the Tour. But the classic mass start is her weakest event, and she knew it would hurt.

“I just had to kill myself to stay with the leaders as long as possible,” she said. “I felt like I had to fight for every single second. I did exactly what I needed to do, but it was incredibly painful. I literally couldn’t feel my body from the waist down for the last few ‘k’ of that race.”

“That kind of pressure can be the thing that breaks you,” Diggins added. “But I thrive on it as well. My body was like this is it, and it rose to the challenge.”

Diggins finished 10th that day and only lost 4 seconds to Stupak; she remained in the overall Tour lead.

Unfortunately, Brennan had a crushing day in the classic mass start. She fell early in the race and with others skiing over her, could not immediately stand up. She lost about two minutes and fell to seventh overall.

Still, she maintained her confidence.

“Your fitness doesn’t just disappear in a day, so I still knew I was fit,” Brennan said. “And my body was struggling with fatigue, but I feel confident in my ability to turn around from tough days.”

“The other nice thing about cross-country skiing is it’s a different race every day, so I didn’t have to do a 10k classic race again,” she joked. “I could hate on it for a moment, then focus on what was next.”

Peaking For The Tour
In endurance sports, peaking for races is key. But in world cup cross-country skiing, races are held almost every weekend. How do you peak?

For Diggins, she chose not to prioritize early season races (known as period one). It would be a building period—particularly after Covid-19 pandemic restrictions kept her off snow all summer. 

By late December, Diggins was flying. She felt good in training and was recovering well, said Cork. Even the world’s best cross-country skiers are continually working on some aspect of their technique—“There’s always something to improve,” he explained. Diggins was mastering the small details, like managing rest and recovery between training sessions and knowing when to go hard in certain workouts and when to back off.

Asked if he thought Diggins could win the 2021 Tour, he replied, “It did not seem out of the realm of possibilities,” particularly without the Norwegians. (Norwegian skiers had won the previous seven events but sat out the 2021 Tour due to Covid-19 concerns.)

For Diggins, winning the Tour had once seemed impossible. She first watched the race when she was 17—a video of Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla climbing Alpe Cermis for the overall Tour win.

“Oh my gosh, how hard it would be to win that,” Diggins thought. 

Then when she started competing in the Tour herself a few years later, it seemed “like the  most impossible thing to win ever.” One bad day, and you would be done. How could you peak for it? 

“It’s so cool to see all the pieces coming together this year,” she said.

The Final Climb
More than one skier has lost the overall Tour de Ski on the final 3.6-kilometer climb up Alpe Cermis in the Tour’s final stage. So Diggins was nervous even though she still felt strong.

As the pack of skiers reached the Alpe and began to climb, Diggins was a few seconds behind Sweden’s Ebba Andersson. But the Swede was not near enough to the American in the overall rankings to worry about. When Diggins pulled away from the pack behind her, she realized that she had the overall win secured. On one of the climb’s switchbacks, she looked back and saw her nearest competitor over 20 seconds behind. 

“That gave me wings,” Diggins said. “I was in so much pain but knowing, oh my gosh, I’m winning the Tour de Ski, that kept fueling the fight to just keep getting my body up that hill.”

After eight days of racing, Diggins won the Tour de Ski in 3:04:45.8—almost a minute-and-a-half ahead of Stupak.

Brennan missed her goal of a top-five Tour finish by 4.6 seconds, but was still happy with sixth overall.

“When I look at those four seconds, I get so mad,” confessed Brennan. “But when I zoom out a bit and look at the season, it’s been absolutely unbelievable. I never even dreamed that any of these things would be coming my way.”

Peggy Shinn

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

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