Behind the Gold: Jessie Diggins’ and Kikkan Randall’s Olympic gold fairy tale comes true
If ever there was an Olympic fairy tale, this would be it.
The 19-year-old Alaskan pushed out of the start in the Olympic qualifying round at Soldier Hollow. It was the debut of the new short distance cross country sprint race at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games – an event the Americans touted as a potential future strong suit. Kikkan Randall didn’t qualify for the finals, finishing 44th.
On that February day, the Diggins family was watching on television at their Afton, Minnesota home. Young 11-year-old Jessie had been cross country skiing since age three. It was still years before she would become a star on her Stillwater High School team.
Some athletes might have been discouraged by a 44th place finish. Randall came from a long lineage of cross country skiers. Aunt Betsy Haines competed in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. Randall chased her running records at East Anchorage High School. She wasn’t dissuaded at all by her finish – her Olympic flame continued to burn.
For decades, American cross country skiers waited patiently for that next Olympic medal. The sport was burgeoning across America in the 1970s as part of a fitness wave when Vermonter Bill Koch stunned the world with silver in the 30k at the 1976 Olympics at Seefeld, Austria.
Over the span of 42 years, Americans had hung their hat on Bill Koch. His name was passed on from generation to generation. It was ironic, as the majority of skiers today weren’t even born in 1976. Not Kikkan. Not Jessie.
Randall took the torch passed to her by aunt and carried it proudly. There were lean years, at first, but she carried on. In December, 2007, at the remote Russian outpost of Rybinsk, Randall began to change her world – winning a FIS World Cup sprint. Three months later, a 17-year-old Diggins, who had a Kikkan Randall poster hanging in her bedroom, won the short distance Kortelopet race at the American Birkebeiner.
Neither knew that fate would one day bring them together.
That day came in February 2013 amidst the towering peaks surrounding Italy’s Val di Fiemme in the heart of the Dolomites. Randall, now a seasoned World Cup champion and a pied piper for her sport, was paired with the younger Diggins in the World Championship team sprint. Diggins would lead off with Randall running anchor. On the third and final lap, Diggins lost a pole. She picked up a replacement – albeit too long – and never flinched, handing off to Randall. Minutes later, Kikkan sprinted to the finish with Sweden seven seconds back. Diggins screamed her lungs out as Randall hit the line – jumping on top of her to celebrate the historic gold medal finish.
Over the next five years, Randall’s legacy would blossom with the growth of a strong and deep team anchored by Diggins but complemented by a half-dozen others who put the U.S. Ski Team women on the map. Still, that Olympic medal eluded them.
On the afternoon of the final Olympic race of her career, Kikkan joined Jessie for the ritual face painting and glitter. She pulled on her relay socks one final time, reminiscing about her career and the team she had helped build. As always, she was ready and prepared to win. But she was also realistic.
On the opening legs Randall and Diggins stayed with the leaders and remained poised. On leg two, the pace quickened. Randall stayed right on the heels of Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla and Norway’s Marit Bjoergen. On Diggins’ leg, she upped the pace, not content to remain in bronze position, but attacking for the lead.
On Randall’s third leg – and final Olympic appearance of her career – she helped separate the top three from the field, setting Diggins up perfectly. Diggins took the final pass and charged out to attack. On the climb, she powered up the hill nearing her VO2 max, legs wobbling. Still she sliced herself right into the heart of the pack. Stride for stride Diggins fought with Sweden’s Stina Nilsson and Norway’s Maiken Kaspersen Falla.
Diggins came flying down the final hill into the stadium, looping wide then letting her Salomon skis glide through the eye of a needle between Falla and Nillson. Her legs were aching, her lungs were on fire. With 150 meters to the finish she went wide to the right on Nilsson – taking a much longer line around the 180-degree turn, but setting herself up for the final sprint.
As they rounded the turn they came dead even. But Diggins had the momentum. Less then 100 meters to go and it was a head-to-head sprint. Diggins exuded power in the precision of each double pole plant. Her shoulders and upper body sent energy through her carbon Swix poles down to the snow. Her powerful legs worked in perfect harmony creating remarkable speed. In the finish, Randall’s lungs burned as she shouted to Jessie.
“I‘m giving it everything I had,” said Diggins after the race, “and I’ve got someone who I really love and care about waiting for me at the finishing line and I just want to make her proud.”
Then, in what seemed like slow motion, Diggins pushed her left leg across the finish in perfect Telemark position to take gold.
This time it was Randall who jumped on her fallen teammate Diggins in the finish. Jessie looked up to Kikkan, who had tears in her eyes, and asked, “What just happened – did we just win the Olympics?”
With tears in her eyes, Kikkan responded: “Yes, Jessie. We did!”
And this fairy tale came true.
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