PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Three of the four members of the U.S. women's cross-country relay team tried to put a cheery face on a disappointing race Saturday night.
Their teammate, Sophie Caldwell, kept looking down with tears in her eyes. Her emotion told the true story.
The Americans had hoped to contend for a medal in the 4x5-kilometer relay at the Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Centre. Instead, a poor first leg by Caldwell doomed any chance at the podium and an end to their medal drought.
The U.S. finished a distant fifth — the third fifth-place finish for Afton's Jessie Diggins, who skied a strong anchor leg but had too much ground to make up.
Norway held off Sweden to win gold with a time of 51 minutes, 24.3 seconds. Marit Bjoergen earned her 13th career medal as part of the winning relay, tying her with Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen for the most Winter Games medals ever.
The Americans finished 1:20.5 behind Norway and 37 seconds behind bronze-medal winner Olympic Athletes From Russia.
No American woman has ever won an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing. The medal drought — men or women — is 42 years, dating to Bill Koch's silver in 1976.
"There's more to it than just medals," Diggins said. "Seeing everyone go out there and lay down a solid race and give it everything they had is what really matters."
Teammates obviously didn't want to point fingers, but this was a disappointing finish because the Americans were expected to be in contention for a bronze medal.
Norway and Sweden were considered heavy favorites and that proved to be the case. A tough start for the U.S. forced them to play catch-up all race.
Caldwell took the first leg in the classic technique and finished her two laps in 11th place, trailing by 1:05. That was simply too much ground for the others to make up against the world's best racers.
In a 2½-minute interview with the entire team afterward, Caldwell only said "I agree" after her teammates spoke glowingly about the strides they have made in the sport while expressing pride in posting the best finish in team history in the relay. Caldwell looked devastated.
"While we tend to focus on medals because we know deep in our hearts it's still possible," said teammate Kikkan Randall, "I still think it's amazing to put together four strong legs and get the best-ever result."
Randall and Diggins closed the gap with strong legs in the freestyle but the leaders were too far ahead of them.
"It's a really exciting rush of adrenaline," Diggins said. "You go out there and leave everything you have on the course. Everybody did that. I got to see my teammates ski their hearts out. I was getting fired up like, OK, it's my turn."
The relay was Diggins' fourth event at these Games. She already had two fifth-place finishes (skiathlon and 10km freestyle) and a sixth place (classic sprint).
Her fifth-place finishes represent the highest finish ever by an American woman in Olympic cross-country skiing.
Diggins narrowly missed the medal stand in the 10km, her best event. She finished only 3.3 seconds behind bronze medalist Bjoergen.
The U.S. has two more chances to win a medal: the team freestyle sprint and the 30km mass start classic.