PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Throughout her cross-country skiing career, relays have always brought out the best in Jessie Diggins. For years, she said, she consistently logged her fastest times when she was racing as part of a group, because she loved the idea of sharing the joy of winning.
“My favorite events are the team events, and that’s what I’m putting the most energy toward,” the Afton native said last week, on the eve of the Pyeongchang Olympics. “For me, to win as a team would mean so much more than anything I could ever do by myself. That’s going to be the highlight of my Games.”
With three individual races in the books — and three top-six results — Diggins moves on to one of her favorite events Saturday, the women’s 4x5-kilometer relay. She will anchor a group still looking for the historic medal that would end 42 years of futility. No American woman ever has won an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing, a drought that was expected to end in Pyeongchang.
Diggins finished fifth Thursday in her best individual event, the 10k freestyle. Her time of 25 minutes, 35.7 seconds was 3.3 seconds shy of winning a bronze medal. The U.S. has three chances remaining to get a medal at Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Centre, in the relay, the team freestyle sprint and the 30k mass start classic.
Though teammate Kikkan Randall said she found Diggins’ near-misses “heartbreaking,” Diggins insisted she wanted no sympathy. She is proud of her fifth-place finishes in the skiathlon and the 10k freestyle — the best Olympic finishes ever by an American woman — and a sixth in the classic sprint. In every race, she said, she has emptied the tank completely, and she is intent on doing the same in the relay.
“It would mean so much to me to medal in the relay, because it’s bigger than just you and your ambitions,” Diggins said. “To be able to be part of making someone else’s dreams come true, that’s what it’s all about.
“I’m fired up for the relays. I really believe in my team, and I’m stoked to give it my best.”
The relay lineup was expected to be announced late Friday afternoon. It is likely to include Sadie Bjornsen, Sophie Caldwell and Randall, with Diggins racing the anchor leg. The race includes four 5k segments, with the first two in classic technique and the second two in freestyle.
With three races in the first five days of the Olympics, Diggins was trying to figure out how to prepare for peak performance every time. The cramps that bothered her earlier are gone, and she believes she has found the right routine of how much and when to eat, drink and sleep.
Thursday, Diggins said it was “a dream come true” to earn three top-six finishes while racing against women who have been her idols. Some well-meaning people have told her they are sorry she hasn’t medaled, an emotion she does not share.
“I’m proud of what I did [Thursday],” she said. “I pushed my body way past its limit. I killed myself out there. I thought I was going to pass out on that last climb. That’s a really good feeling, to know you gave it everything you had, and more than you thought you could give.”
Before the Olympics, Diggins said a medal in the relay would be more meaningful to her than an individual medal. She is so team-oriented that she had to work with a sports psychologist to learn it was OK to want to win for herself as much as she wanted to win for others.
Randall understands the feeling. After seeing Diggins “skiing her heart out” in three races over five days, she would like nothing more than to help get her — and the entire U.S. women’s program — the medal they have wanted for so long.
“It’s tough to see Jessie be so close and not quite get there,” Randall said. “But I know all of us seem to rise to the occasion when the relays come around.”