No American woman ever had won a major championship medal in a long distance cross-country skiing race before Tuesday.
Minnesota natives Jessie Diggins and Caitlin Gregg made it two in one day.
Diggins and Gregg stunned the established favorites by taking silver and bronze in the 10-kilometer freestyle event at the Nordic skiing world championships behind winner Charlotte Kalla of Sweden.
Helped by early bib numbers and perfect skis on a day when heavy snow made things hard on the later starters, the duo upstaged the powerful Norwegian team to earn the first American medals of these worlds.
“The fact that we’re making some history here with the first U.S. women to podium in a distance event in a championships is really crazy and still sinking in,” said Diggins, of Afton, Minnesota.
Diggins paired with Kikkan Randall to win gold in the short-distance team sprint at the 2013 worlds – at a time when Randall was the top freestyle sprinter on the World Cup circuit – but Tuesday’s medal was totally unexpected, even for herself.
“I was hoping for maybe top six if I had such an amazing day,” Diggins said. “When it started snowing it was an opportunity, and I was able to take it and push so hard. When I crossed the finish line I thought, ‘I’m going to die.’ It was crazy out there, and I was just having the race of my life.”
Gregg’s bronze was even more stunning: she’s never even finished in the top 10 in a World Cup race.
Gregg, of Minneapolis, was the third of 71 skiers to start in the event, a race against the clock where skiers set out at 30-second intervals. That proved to be a big benefit as the snow and wind picked up during the race. Gregg finished in 25 minutes, 55.7 seconds and had the leading time until Diggins – with bib 37 – beat her by 5.9 seconds.
An exhausted Diggins collapsed in a heap in the finish area, and Gregg was the first person there to help her back up. And it was at that stage that Gregg realized they may have just done something special.
“All of a sudden kind of dawned on me that we were both having a really good race,” Gregg said.
The Norwegian team failed to get the wax setup right for the changing conditions and didn’t have a single skier in the top 20. Marit Bjoergen – the six-time Olympic champion who went out last among the seeded skiers – finished more than two minutes back in 31st place. Therese Johaug, who won the 15K skiathlon Saturday and was the defending 10K world champion, was 27th, also more than two minutes back.
“We didn’t have the optimal skis (Tuesday), but that’s part of the game,” Bjoergen said. “(Tuesday) we got it wrong.”
But the American team, with a fraction of the budget and staff of the Norwegians, got it exactly right.
“Team USA did a really, really good job with our skis,” Gregg said. “(They) made it easy for us to do well (Tuesday).”
There was nothing to be done about Kalla, though. The Swede gave the host nation its first gold medal of these worlds after dominating from the start and winning by a massive 41 seconds.
This is Kalla’s favorite event, which she won at the 2010 Olympics and in the final World Cup meet before the championships.
But her rivals for the gold were supposed to be Bjoergen and Johaug – not Diggins and Gregg.
Norway won gold in five of the six previous cross-country skiing events at the worlds, with Bjoergen and Johaug taking one each. But as it became clear that their skiers were struggling, even the Norwegian coaches started cheering for Diggins out along the track.
“They were giving us splits out there. Coaches from all different countries were yelling, ‘Come on Jessica!” Diggins said. “It was just really cool, because it gets you fired up, and it’s neat to feel that it’s a lot of camaraderie.”