PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Jessie Diggins knows her first race of the Pyeongchang Olympics wasn’t her best. In her mind, that puts her right where she wants to be.
The cross-country skier from Afton finished fifth in the skiathlon Saturday, the highest placing ever by an American woman in a cross-country race at the Olympics. Her next chance to make history is expected to come in Tuesday’s classic sprint. Now that Diggins has a feel for the course, the conditions and how to handle the demands of these Olympics, she will fine-tune some details in pursuit of the podium.
“There are a few things I’m going to dial in this week,’’ Diggins said. “I’m trying to figure out fuel and hydration for these late afternoon races. I think when I get that dialed in and make sure my body is ready to be pushed when I demand it to be pushed, then I’ll really be able to start putting together the results I’m hoping for.’’
In Saturday’s skiathlon, which combines a 7.5-kilometer classic leg with a 7.5k freestyle leg, Diggins learned the course at Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Center is both a tactical challenge and “a serious grinder.’’ A bitter wind and some tight areas on the track made it essential to be in just the right position throughout the race.
Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla and Norway’s Marit Bjoergen took turns on the lead until Kalla surged away from the pack to win her third Olympic gold medal. Bjoergen’s silver was her 11th Winter Games medal, making her the most decorated woman in Winter Olympics history. Finland’s Krista Parmakoski was third.
Diggins finished 14.7 seconds behind Kalla, posting the 13th-fastest classic leg and the fifth-fastest freestyle time. She said she wasn’t in good position when Kalla made her charge, and when she found her fastest stride, it was too late.
She also was bothered by some cramping and muscle twitching in her arm.
While Diggins was pleased she gave the best possible effort, she knows she can gain some speed with a few adjustments.
“I’ve been struggling to eat enough, and the stress level has been pretty high,’’ she said. “I threw up a little bit before the start because I was so nervous. I’m going to work a little bit on a few things in terms of managing stress.
“I’m going to dial in a few more things and make sure next time I’m ready to go. But I’m really proud of my race. Honestly, I can say I could not have pushed harder. I got everything that my body would let me get out of it, so I’m really happy with that.’’
Two other things, Diggins said, were ideal Saturday. The U.S. wax technicians prepared her skis perfectly, giving her confidence that her equipment will be as fast as possible.
She also caught a glimpse of her family — including parents Clay and Deb and sister Mackenzie — waving an American flag in the stands, adding that their support “has been huge.’’
Teammate Kikkan Randall, who finished 40th, kept an eye on Diggins later in the race and was happy to see her staying with the lead pack. “Her day is coming, for sure,’’ Randall said.
Diggins can’t help but feel the same.
“It’s really cool being seconds away from a medal,’’ she said. “I’m ready to do some more. I think I’m in a good place at these Games.’’