USA Women: Two for Two in Seefeld
Jessie Diggins (Afton, Minn.) skied a brilliant race on fast skis to give the USA a victory sweep of the weekend following Sophie Caldwell's (Peru, Vt.) win in Saturday's freestyle sprint. The 10k freestyle mass start was a test event for the 2019 World Chanpionships in Seefeld, Austria. It was Diggins' first win of the season and set the stage for the team to head to PyeongChang next week for the Olympic Winter Games.
Three U.S. women cracked the top 14 with Sadie Bjornsen (Winthrop, Wash.) eighth and Kikkan Randall (Anchorage) 14th.
The U.S. men had one of their strongest days in recent history in distance racing. Erik Bjornsen (Winthrop, Wash.) was ninth in the men's 15k freestyle mass start with Simi Hamilton (Aspen, Colo.) 12th - both career bests and just seconds behind winner Dario Cologna of Switzerland.
Diggins had sat out Saturday's sprint to pace herself going into the Olympics. She came to the start line fresh and energized, engaging in the race from the start. She played a cat and mouse game with Weng and Norway's Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, mainly back in third to fifth. As they lapped back into the stadium on a long downhill, Diggins let her Salomon skis run and saw quickly she was much faster than the field. Coming into a sharp right corner, she ducked down inside Weng and Østberg to sneak into the lead. She held that spot, dropping back again for a period before making her move on a hill with about a kilometer to go. As the leaders hit the climb, Diggins attacked building a gap and widening it on the subsequent downhill. Raghild Haga then moved into the picture, joining Diggins and Weng in a finish sprint. But it was all Diggins as she took her fifth career World Cup win and first above 5k.
"What a fun race," she said. "Such a cool feeling, having the energy after sitting out Saturday’s race to then make a decisive move on that final brutal uphill. It was a hard course on which to break up the pack. So I stayed near the front and out of trouble, taking my turn to pull but also saving some energy knowing that it would likely come down to the last few kilometers like the men’s race did. I was confident in my skis and how I was cornering the big downhill, so I just put my head down and went for it."
Diggins won in similar style as Cologna had just a few hours earlier, admitting to watching the men and learning his strategy. But one of the keys were her skis.
"I just had awesome skis today, and our techs did such a good job," she said. "We had some absolutely killer cheering out there as the men’s downhill team came out in full force. I can’t believe how awesome it was to hear them yelling on the side of the trail."
Sadie Bjornsen admitted that her brother Erik's performance in the morning gave her a boost. "I got my brother by one spot, which is a daily competition for the two of us," she laughed. "He set the bar high this morning. I am just so excited to see how well he did, and Simi as well. Those two have a bright future for the team sprint, I can't even wait to watch!"
Her eighth place finish was a career best in a 10k freestyle. "It was an exciting, and super fun final race before the Olympic Games," she said. "It was hot from the start on a really fun course here in Seefeld. I think the nature of the course kind of held the pack together a bit more, which always makes for a fun race. I felt really good out there, and was super happy with the day."
The men's race was pivotal for the USA.
"it was an incredible day," said Hamilton. "I’ve been wanting to do that for a while and today a whole lot of things just clicked. My fitness is great right now and it gives me so much confidence leading into Korea."
The rare mass start format provided an opportunity for new strategies and the course played to the U.S. strengths.
"I focused on skiing a smart race, staying relaxed on the climbs, and picking people off where I could," said Hamilton. "I think the downhills really played into my strengths, and my skis were absolute rockets. I was able to get past a few people on each long downhill on each lap, so moving up through the pack worked really well today."
Hamilton echoed the importance of the event for the team, with three in the points including Scott Patterson (Anchorage) finishing 27th.
"I’m so, so psyched for Scott and Erik today too - specially Erik with his first ever top 10 - and he earned that one today," said Hamilton. "And to have Scott in the points gives our whole men’s team a really good energy heading into Korea."
Spirits were high across the U.S. Ski Team after its final race before PyeongChang. "It will be great to have two more weeks to rest, recover and come in sharp for these exciting races to come," said Sadie Bjornsen. "I am so excited to see our team on fire right now too. The vibe is great, the spirit is high, and we are so excited to take on the world in a few weeks here! Win or lose, I think this team is going to do something great! Now, let the games begin."
Diggins remained third in the FIS World Cup overall standings with Bjornsen seventh.
The team will train in Europe before heading to PyeongChang next week.