PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – The big breakthrough was supposed to happen four years ago, at the 2014 Olympics. Jessie Diggins, Kikkan Randall and their teammates entered the Sochi Winter Games draped in hype and hope, primed to bring the U.S. its first-ever Olympic medal in women’s cross-country skiing.
Those dreams dissolved under the brutal Russian sun, a hard reckoning for a team that had begun to assert itself on the World Cup circuit. “It was certainly tough for all of us, because we were so confident,” Randall said. “Everyone worked so hard to try and make it happen. But we learned some valuable lessons.”
Their only recourse was to spend the next four years working even harder. Saturday, the Americans will try again, kicking off the cross-country competition at the Pyeongchang Winter Games with a deeper, stronger team than they brought to Sochi.
Diggins, of Afton, is expected to be among the U.S. starters in the women’s skiathlon at Alpensia Cross-Country Centre. She enters the Olympics on the rise, after winning the final World Cup race before the Winter Games — a 10-kilometer freestyle in Austria — to remain in third place in the overall standings.
The day before Diggins’ victory, teammate Sophie Caldwell won a World Cup freestyle sprint. She is 17th in the overall standings, and Sadie Bjornsen is seventh, making the U.S. the only nation besides Norway with three women in the top 17. Since Sochi, the Americans have turned occasional success on the World Cup circuit into sustained results, giving them the confidence they need to finally get onto the Olympic medal table.
“I remember going to my first Olympics, where we weren’t really looking at winning medals,” said Randall, a five-time Olympian who made her Winter Games debut in 2002 in Salt Lake City. “Watching people stand on the podium, I thought, ‘Man. We can do this.’
“When I got my first podium and my first win, I think that opens the door for future generations. They don’t have to ever wonder whether it was possible. They know we can do it.”
Diggins could ski in five of the six women’s races at the Olympics. Her best finish in Sochi was an eighth place in the skiathlon, which includes a 7.5k classic leg followed by a 7.5k freestyle leg.
Unexpectedly warm temperatures spoiled her Winter Games debut. In her final race, the 30k classic, she overheated so badly she stripped off layers of clothing and dumped five bottles of water over her head and finished 40th. Despite that, Diggins came away from the Olympics with her mettle intact, determined to position herself for a better result this time.
Coach Jason Cork constructed a training and racing schedule designed to put her in peak condition for Pyeongchang. Her victory two weeks ago showed the plan is working, giving her another reason to be confident.
“We have this system dialed in,” said Diggins, who thrives in the type of frigid air that has gripped the Pyeongchang area in recent weeks. “That gives me a lot of comfort.
“I learned so much in Sochi, and I’m taking all that with me going forward. This is a team that has a lot of courage and a lot of bravery and a lot of guts. And we’re going after it again.”
Randall called the 2014 Olympics “a character-building couple of weeks.” She took a year off from racing after having a baby and was inspired to return because of the potential she saw in her young teammates.
The first American woman to win a World Cup cross-country medal, Randall is energized by the athletes who are following in her tracks. It’s been a long wait for their next shot at an Olympic medal, but she believes the U.S. women have never been so ready.
“We used to be lucky just to field a team,” Randall said. “Now, we have so many women who can be a podium threat on any given day.
“We still have a ways to go to have that foundation that the powerhouse Nordic nations have. But we’re getting there. We know it’s possible when we put the right day together.”