Behind the Gold |

Behind the Gold

Tom Kelly, Record Columnist

Successful athletes share many common traits. Foremost among them are "team" and "belief." This past weekend, on cross-country ski trails above the Arctic Circle in Sweden, the U.S. Women’s Cross Country Ski Team accomplished something together that was rooted in the belief they shared in each other and the goal they sought as a team.

On a Sunday morning that each of them will always remember, they wrote another chapter in history for their sport in America. It was a chapter they knew they would write at some point in time. They just didn’t know it would be that morning. In 35 years of FIS Cross Country World Cup, an American relay team had never finished on the top-three podium. Until Sunday.

Coach Chris Grover said it best. For the U.S. Ski Team to make the podium against powerhouse teams from Norway and Sweden, it would take each of the four U.S. girls to simply ski the best 5k races of their lives. And they did. And it’s not likely to be their last!

"We’ve known this was possible for a long time," one of the four, Kikkan Randall, said Sunday. "We just knew it was going to take each of us putting together the right performance on the right day and we could be in the fight for the podium. Today everything came together. It was one of the strongest waves of emotion I’ve ever felt!"

Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. women came to Park City for a final tune-up camp before heading to Scandinavia. It was a team buoyed by optimism and confidence. But more than that, it was belief. It was belief from the four girls that they could match up with Olympic champions and make history.

When first-year U.S. Ski Team athlete Holly Brooks led off, she had belief. She knew there would be bumping and banging at the start but she held her own. She was just 12 seconds off the pace when she handed off to Kikkan Randall.

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Kikkan’s job was to get the Americans close, picking just that right moment to make a break on a corner and gain contact on Norway. She skied the fastest classic leg to put the USA into second, just eight seconds back. Liz Stephen took the tag for the first freestyle technique leg and mounted a vicious attack — knocking four seconds off Norway’s lead and building a bigger gap over Sweden.

It all came down to Jessie Diggins. In just her second year on the World Cup, Jessie didn’t have the experience of her teammates. But she had belief. Holding off Olympic champion Charlotte Kalla of Sweden — who was hot on her ski tails — was not realistic. But being in position to out-sprint a hard-charging Norway II team was. As they came to the final sprint, Diggins left no doubt whatsoever. She parlayed the earlier work of her teammates with the belief that she could cross the line ahead of Norway II. It was never in question.

The record American performance was more than just those four girls having their best days. It was about teammate Ida Sargent yelling her lungs out to encourage Jessie into the finish. It was about teammate Sadie Bjornsen screaming at the top of her lungs as she watched on a computer thousands of miles away. It was about the coaches and the wax techs — and all the fans and supporters who were up at 2:30 a.m. to watch pirated signals on the Internet to be a part of the history.

It was a big team that reveled in that history-making moment. It was a team that had belief!

One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as Vice President, Communications for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he’s not traveling the world with the Team.