Despite medal expectations, Jessie Diggins happy with fifth place in sprint relay
Diggins, from Afton, Minnesota, now has finished in the top eight in 11 consecutive Olympic races, including all her starts in the past two Winter Games
ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Jessie Diggins knew she couldn't escape the expectations. Never mind that the team sprint at the Beijing Olympics would be raced in a different technique, at a different altitude, on different snow, with a different partner.
When it was over, the outcome was different, too.
Four years after winning Olympic gold in the freestyle team sprint, Diggins paired up with Rosie Brennan for a fifth-place finish in Wednesday's classic team sprint. Germany, Sweden and Russia took the medals this time, pulling away on the final leg of the six-lap, tag-team event in the mountains of Zhangjiakou.
Diggins expressed no disappointment at finishing off the podium. The Americans, less proficient in classic skiing than in freestyle, came in as underdogs this time.
Brennan was in third place when she handed off to Diggins for the final lap, but Diggins faded as the pace heated up. Germany's Victoria Carl swept around the outside to pass Sweden's Jonna Sundling and Russia's Natalia Nepryaeva on the final turn, then held on to nip Sundling by 0.17 of a second. Nepryaeva was 0.71 back, with the Americans finishing 12.93 seconds behind the winners.
Carl and partner Katharina Hennig completed the race — six laps around a 1.5-kilometer course — in 22 minutes, 9.85 seconds.
Diggins, who won bronze in the freestyle sprint last week, skied so hard she felt sick and dizzy after the race. On this night, four years after the crowning moment of her career, she said knowing she did her best was enough.
"I'm not trying to compare today to four years ago," Diggins said. "Literally nothing is the same, and that's OK. Today, I was going out there and skiing for Rosie, and skiing as hard as I could and as best I could. I'm really proud of this race, and proud of giving it our best fight."
Diggins now has finished in the top eight in 11 consecutive Olympic races, including all her starts in the past two Winter Games. In Beijing, she also has the sprint bronze, a pair of sixth-place finishes in the relay and the skiathlon, and an eighth place in the 10k classic. She confirmed Wednesday she will race all six events, completing her schedule with Sunday's 30k freestyle mass start.
Brennan also will compete in the full slate. Wednesday was another near-miss for her, after finishing fourth in the sprint and sixth in the relay.
"I felt really good about my skiing today," Brennan said. "I think it was one of my better classic races this week. I did what I could to stay in contact, to give Jessie her best shot. I'm happy with that."
Four years ago, Diggins paired up with Kikkan Randall to win Olympic gold in the freestyle team sprint in Pyeongchang. Randall retired shortly after that milestone victory, the first Winter Games gold medal ever won by the United States in cross-country skiing.
Olympic races alternate between the freestyle and classic techniques, so the team sprint was competed in the classic technique this year after being a freestyle in 2018. That already presented a challenge to the Americans, and the arctic temperatures added extra difficulty for the entire field.
The men's and women's team sprints both were held Wednesday, and both started two hours earlier to avoid plunging temperatures after dusk. It was about 4 degrees at the start of the semifinals, with a wind chill of minus-2.
Rather than applying glitter directly on their cheeks — a custom of the U.S. women, started by Diggins years ago — Diggins and Brennan put tape on their faces to ward off the chill, then put the glitter on top of that. They also wore heated socks underneath their traditional striped relay socks.
Brennan, a technically sound classic skier, led off for the Americans. Diggins, who has been their anchor in team events for several years, kept that role. They finished second to Germany in the semifinals, then faced a loaded field in the final.
The U.S. was among the top three for much of the race, including on the final exchange. But when Germany, Sweden, Russia and Finland kicked into higher gears, Diggins could not hang on.
Diggins said she had "great skis'' for the race, prepared to help her kick hard on the uphill sections of the course. She has worked hard to improve her classic technique, and she was pleased with her kick and her stride in the team sprint.
"Technically, this was some of my best classic skiing,'' she said. "I went as hard as I could. I'm just really proud of giving it our all, because that's all you can do.''