Jessie Diggins and Caitlin Gregg seize opportunity | ParkRecord.com

Jessie Diggins and Caitlin Gregg seize opportunity

Tom Kelly, Park Record Columnist

It was an unlikely scenario. In a raging, wet Swedish snowstorm, three athletes shivered in the cold of the finish stadium in Falun. In the middle stood Sweden’s favorite daughter, Charlotte Kalla — finally achieving her world title. Flanking her were two Americans — beaming with pride and a bit bewildered at what was happening around them.

They had just become World Championship medalists! Silver to Jessie Diggins. Bronze to Caitlin Gregg.

This was not what had been expected on this day at the mid-point of the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in the heart of Dalarna. The women’s 10K was touted as a matchup pitting Norway’s Therese Johaug and Marit Bjoergen against Kalla, a 2010 Olympic champion. But as a passing blizzard dumped new snow on the steep pitch of Moerderbakken, the Norwegians weren’t able to play with the new cards they had been dealt.

While it would be easy to have said ‘I did my best’ and fault the weather, three medals were awarded that day last week. And the Americans came to play, grabbing two.

"With the snow, I had an opportunity," said Caitlin Gregg. "But so did the girl ahead of me and all those behind me. I skied my heart out."

In the ’80s, American cross country skiing had a single sport hero in Bill Koch with his 1976 Olympic silver and 1982 World Cup title. But as a nation, America tended to settle for a secondary place behind the Scandinavians. That began to change in the 2000s when a new wave of athletes like Kikkan Randall, Andy Newell and Kris Freeman showed the USA could compete. That has grown with the likes of Diggins, Liz Stephen, Simi Hamilton and Noah Hoffman, who have all challenged for World Cup wins and podiums.

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In the team meeting on the eve of the 10K, U.S. coaches looked four American girls in the eyes and asked them to think about a question: ‘why not me?’

And, why not?

No one thought about number three-starting Caitlin Gregg as a medal contender. But she did. This single day was her sole focus for months. Gregg wasn’t on the World Cup tour. She and husband Brian moved to Summit County, Colorado, for a month to do high-altitude training. Every minute of her life in the last month had been designed to lead up to the 25 minutes, 55 seconds she was on course.

Don’t let the face glitter fool you. Jessie Diggins, the smiling, fun-loving dance choreographer of the Team’s famous Uptown Funk video is one of the fiercest competitors. Put her on a pair of skis and she’s going to fly. Tell her she’s in the lead, and she’s really gone.

Earlier that morning, U.S. coaches looked at the sky and talked about the forecast for snow right at race time. In the USA wax cabins, the techs were processing a complex forecast. Temperature. Humidity. Old snow mixed with new. Thousands of variables. Four skiers, four different ski brands: Madshus for Caitlin, Salomon for Jessie, Rossignol for Liz Stephen, Fischer for Kikkan Randall.

Coaches ran skis back and forth to the test track — a course they knew wouldn’t be the same 30 minutes later. It was time to roll the dice. The Americans prepped for wet, new snow. At the start line, the U.S. athletes clicked into rocket ships — they just didn’t know it yet.

In an interval start race, athletes hit the track at 30-second intervals, racing against the clock, coaches watching split times along the course. With over 70 starters, it would take over a half-hour to get everyone on course — the best-seeded athletes towards the very end. Gregg started third, Jessie Diggins 37th and Kalla 49th.

When Gregg started, there were tiny flakes. As Diggins headed out 17 minutes later, the snow was dumping. Coaches suddenly realized that Gregg’s early splits were for real. The track was slowing. As Diggins reached 3K, Gregg was finishing as race leader, making her way into the stadium as the first finisher. Sweden’s Kalla was just kicking out of the start.

Gregg sat in the fur-lined leader’s chair, a novelty often enjoyed by early starters — simply waiting for the next one to bump her out of her seat. But today it was different. No one came.

As Diggins churned through the snow into the halfway mark, it was now clear. The Americans had a real chance. Coaches from every nation yelled at Diggins repeatedly, ‘you’re in the lead.’ She heard them, loud and clear. Seven kilometers into her race, the top-seeded Norwegians and Swedes were hitting the early splits. The Swedes, led by Kalla, were on it. The Norwegians were not. America was two-three behind Kalla.

For the next 15 minutes, the world spun in slow motion. As more splits rolled in, Kalla was the only skier showing up ahead of the Americans. Bursting with energy those final few kilometers, Diggins took every risk on the corners — almost crashing. She came in to unseat her teammate. But they continued to hold first and second until Kalla came home the winner.

As Caitlin and Jessie accepted their medals that evening, a lone American flag flew higher and bigger over the sea of blue and yellow. In the back, two sets of stars and stripes were raised.

"We had this opportunity and we took it," said Diggins. "To be part of the amazing atmosphere on the U.S. Ski Team? It’s incredible. We have so much fun together. We create this really positive energy. I feel really proud to be a part of the team."

There were many winners in the Falun 2015 medals plaza that snowy night. But Coach Matt Whitcomb said it best: "The group I’m most happy for tonight are all the 9-year-old kids back home who will be inspired."

Sport is about inspiration. It’s about seizing opportunity and sharing it. From all the cross country kids in America, congratulations Jessie and Caitlin! Now let us inspire you.

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.