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Countdown to the 2022 Olympic Winter Games

2019-20 Davis U.S. Cross Country Team Season Highlights

By Tom Horrocks
April, 12 2020
Team Sprint
Sophie Caldwell, Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, Rosie Brennan and Jessie Diggins provided one of the many 2019-20 season highlights with their second-place relay finish in Lillehammer. (@nordicfocus)

The 2019-20 season provided the Davis U.S. Cross Country Ski Team with a number of top World Cup and World Championship results, and a fair share of disappointment with the season cut short due to COVID-19.

“Overall, the season was a mixture of excitement and quite a bit of disappointment at the end, due to the cancellation of events,” U.S. Ski & Snowboard Cross Country Program Director Chris Grover said. “Sometimes it’s hard to remember all the great parts of the season in the face of the loss of the North American World Cups, given that most of the U.S. athletes were hyper-focused on racing well at home.”

Indeed, the cancellation of the Fastenal Parallel 45 Festival, which was set to host the first FIS Cross Country World Cup in the United States in 19 years, was a huge disappointment. In addition, Canada also cancelled World Cup events in Quebec City and Canmore, Alberta. But while the season didn’t provide the storybook ending everyone had hoped, the opening World Cup weekend in Ruka, Finland, did spark significant excitement as Sadie Maubet Bjornsen finished third in the season-opening classic sprint, and fourth in the 10k classic to become the first American athlete to wear the overall World Cup yellow leader’s bib.

Sadie’s Ruka podium was also the first of nine World Cup podiums for Americans throughout the season and certainly got the team off to a quick start. Jessie Diggins scored the third-fastest time-of-day in the Ruka 10k freestyle pursuit - the first of her five individual World Cup podiums for the 2019-20 season.

The following weekend in Lillehammer, Norway, Jessie scored her second World Cup podium of the season, finishing second in the skiathlon, and setting the stage for perhaps the World Cup highlight of the season - a second-place women’s team relay result from the following day. Jessie teamed up with Sadie, Sophie Caldwell, and Rosie Brennan to match the best U.S. Team relay result in World Cup history.

“It is always an incredible day when we land on the podium as a team,” Sadie said. “Putting four perfect legs together is a huge achievement, which is why winning a team medal is so special. It has been a few years since our group has stood on the podium for the 4x5k relay, so we were quite excited!”

Capitalizing on the Lillehammer success, the U.S. women had scored three-straight World Cup events with an American athlete (or team) on the podium. Moving on to Davos, Switzerland, Sophie improved the American’s top-three streak to four when she finished third in the freestyle sprint. The next day, Jessie continued the streak to five-straight races, finishing third in the 10k freestyle. On to Planica, Slovenia, Julia Kern picked up her first career World Cup podium, and improved the U.S. women’s podium streak to six straight, outsprinting Sophie for a third-place finish. Unfortunately, the World Cup podium streak ended at six, but more impressively, the U.S. women have scored 15 top-10 individual and team results through the first four World Cup events of the season.

However, the quick start to the season did have its drawbacks. “One conversation we are having with each of our veteran athletes is how to manage the overall load of the season,” Chris said. “These athletes need to find time away from the World Cup for training and to reconnect with family and friends in order to be prepared to ski fast. This remains one of our biggest hurdles in performance. USA athletes are training quite well in the winter, but the disconnect from their home communities can gradually wear them down.”

Unfortunately, while her teammates were battling for top World Cup results to kick off the season, a nagging cold forced Hailey Swirbul onto the sidelines, but she made the best of it by cheering on her teammates. This wasn’t how she imagined her first season on the World Cup tour kicking off. But she put that disappointment behind her when she earned her first career World Cup points, finishing 30th in the freestyle sprint in Davos. The next day, she finished 21st in the 10k freestyle before returning to the U.S. for the L.L. Bean U.S. Championships where she picked up her first three-career U.S. titles. When she returned to the World Cup Tour in Sweden, she picked up two more top-30 results, including a career-best 13th in a 10k classic pursuit in Ostersund.

Little did we know that the final races of the season would provide the greatest highlight of the season. With the novel coronavirus expanding its worldwide spread, the Junior and U23 World Championships in Germany were able to host all events before a worldwide travel ban went into effect. Fortunately, for the U.S. Team, the athletes peaked at just the right time, coming away with 10 total medals, including gold for the junior men’s relay team and silver for the junior women’s relay team. Gus Schumacher also took the gold - the first by an American - in the junior men’s 10k classic, and Julia rebounded from a mid-season leg injury to take bronze in the U23 freestyle sprint.

“The Junior/U23 World Champs were certainly the main highlight, and specifically the junior relays, followed by the exciting new formats of the Ski Tour 2020 and probably the women’s team performance in World Cup Period 1, including the second-place relay finish in Lillehammer,” Chris reflected. 

As the long season wore on, Jessie’s third-place and Sophie’s fourth-place classic sprint finish in Oberstdorf, Germany, in late January, unfortunately, provided the last podium performance of the long World Cup season. Most of the U.S. athletes returned to America the first week of March to rest and sharpen their fitness for the final three World Cup events in North America. However, the pandemic, unfortunately, robbed them of the opportunity to shine in front of the home-country crowd. 

Davis U.S. Cross Country Team 2019-20 Highlights: