Silver and bronze to open World Champs
Americans work together to claim two medals
American cross-country skiing took another giant step forward Thursday night in Lahti, as the USA took two medals in a single race for the second straight World Championships. Jessie Diggins won silver with teammate Kikkan Randall taking bronze in the opening freestyle sprint at the 2017 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships.
Norway’s Maikken Caspersen Falla, the sprint gold medalist from Sochi, won gold. Italy’s Federico Pellegrino took gold for the men.
It was a night of gritty performances for the U.S. women, especially Randall who survived scares in both the quarterfinals and semifinals. Despite a slightly slower qualifying than anticipated, the U.S. women packed three of four starters into the six-women final including Diggins, Randall and Sophie Caldwell, who finished sixth.
In the opening quarterfinal, Caldwell skied a strong race against Sweden’s Stina Nilsson to finish second and advance to the semifinals. Randall, who qualified 10th to lead the USA, was slotted into the second heat where she faced a torrid pace from Kaspersen Fall and Hanna Falk of Sweden. Randall had been running fourth with about 400 meters to go in the 1.4-kilometer course when she made an inside move on third place Swiss Laurien Van Der Graaf.
It was a narrow section of the course and Randall was unable to make the pass as Van der Graaf pinched her down. Randall was unable to regain the momentum and finished fourth – still in a lucky loser position after two heats. But officials ruled that Van der Graaf has obstructed Randall, relegating her to last in the heat and moving Randall to third. That bump allowed Randall to advance.
In her semifinal heat, Randall skied together with Caldwell. Coming into the stadium, the two were running fourth and fifth behind Nilsson and Russia’s Natalia Matveeva. Nilsson cut down on Matveeva causing both to crash. Randall, who had been directly behind, had just moved inside to pass and was able to lead Caldwell through a gap to finish second and third with Caldwell surviving to move into the finals as a lucky loser.
Diggins, meanwhile, skied strong in both her quarterfinal and semifinal heats to win.
In the final, Caspersen Falla set a torrid pace from the start with Sweden’s Falk and Ida Ingemarsdotter close in pursuit. Diggins maneuvered her way strategically through the field to move into a strong silver medal position coming into the home stretch. But Randall had to fight, catching Falk in the final 100 meters to take bronze.
The finish replicated the two-medal finish for the USA from World Championships two years ago when Diggins and Caitlin Gregg went silver-bronze in the 10-kilometer freestyle. It was Diggins’ third straight World Championships in the medals, going back to her team sprint gold with Randall at 2013 World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy. Diggins and Randall now each have three World Champioships medals – the most of any U.S. man or woman.
The medal was especially poignant for Randall, who was making a return from a year off for a pregnancy. Her 10-month old son Breck was in the crowd.
“It was a different day of preparation for me before I went to the heats,” said Randall. “After breakfast I came home and did some laundry, put our son down for a nap, then loaded him onto the bus to the venue. During the race he was touring around with my dad. It was a different kind of day but it helped me stay calm.”
At times this season, the possibilities seemed distant. In her first sprint in November she was 52nd in Ruka, Finland. A few weeks later in Davos, Switzerland, she was 58th. She finally qualified for the heats in Val Mustair, Switzerland during Tour de Ski in January. And in the last month, had been regaining her form with a pair of results inside the top 10. Through it all, she kept reminding herself that the focus was World Championships.
“It’s very encouraging to know it’s only been 10 months and I’ve been able to come back to top form,” she said. “I was able to train well through my pregnancy and it’s great to see it all come together here.”
Both Diggins and Randall took great pride in what they have helped to create with such a strong, deep women’s team that has seen five different athletes crack the World Cup podium this year.
“That’s for sure the most fun I’ve ever had in a final,” said Randall. “Before we went to the start we did a team cheer. We had such a good energy between the three of us and all of our team that is supporting us. It was a really magical day for our team.”
Magical, indeed. And for a team whose goal is not just to win, but to inspire, it was perfect timing.
“I hope this inspires people back home,” said Diggins, thinking about the 10,000 skiers who will be competing in this weekend’s Slumberland American Birkebeiner in northern Wisconsin. “If a girl from Minnesota who just loves to dance and wear sparkles and be silly can do it, they can do. We’re not a country historically known for cross country skiing. But we’ve created this women’s team together and worked so hard – and that teamwork really shows. We can be stronger together than we can as individuals.”
Friday is an off day from cross country competition, with women back in action for Saturday’s skiathlon. Diggins is expected to be among the favorites. The U.S. women will also be among the contenders in next week’s 4x5k relay. No American man or woman has ever won two medals in a single World Championships.
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