For many Americans, cross-country ski racing is the race walking of winter sports, that odd endeavor that looks difficult but not fun. For others it’s that thing those who can’t downhill ski do while the real skiers are having fun on the mountain.
But in Europe and Scandinavia, it’s a major sport—if not a pastime—followed by millions with rewards for the top racers of fame and fortune. For decades, a dedicated group of Americans have worked their hearts out to compete with the world’s best on their turf. With no big races in the U.S., Americans leave home in November and don’t return until April. But no American had won a medal at the World Championship in a cross-country distance race for the last 33 years.
That was until yesterday, when two women from Minnesota, Jessie Diggins and Caitlin Gregg, pulled off one of the epic upsets in winter sports history, winning silver and bronze medals in the 10-kilometer race at the 2015 World Championships in Falun, Sweden. Another U.S. woman, Liz Stephans, was 10th.
To have three American women in the top 10 at the World Championship is like a Swede being named MVP of the Super Bowl, closely followed by a Norwegian and a Finn. They’re the first American medals since Vermonter Bill Koch won a silver medal in the 1976 Olympics, followed by a 1982 bronze medal in the World Championship.
Tuesday, February 24 will go down as the greatest day in the history of the cross-country U.S Ski Team. That these medals were won by U.S. female athletes makes it sweeter, given the nation’s focus on male-dominated sports.
I’ve been in Falun since the opening of the World Championships and it’s a wild scene. Tens of thousands of fans line some of the world’s toughest courses, screaming for their country’s racers. National flags are big with the spectators. For every 100 flag of a traditional powerhouse like Sweden or Norway, there may be one decked with stars and stripes.
That’s why it takes unimaginable focus for an American to walk into that ski stadium, line up with the world’s best in front of their rabid fans, knowing almost no one believes you have a chance, and medal anyway. But there is something special about this closely knit American team, a bond forged living together every year for five months on the road far from family and friends. And in a snowy Falun, they seized their moment.
There’s a hill on the Falun course so long and steep the racers call it Murder Hill; the women skied it twice on the 10-kilometer course. By the second loop, every racer was exhausted and it is at that point in a race when racers say their bodies are screaming to drop the pace just a bit—anything to make the pain less intense. Minnesotan Jessie Diggins—5’4”, 128 pounds—instead looked around at the sea of Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Germans and Italians for a split second, put her head down and attacked Murder Hill, moving a crowd to cheers.
I saw Joe Frazier put Muhammad Ali on the canvas in their first bout and it was that kind of moment—when something stirs inside a battered athlete and they somehow find another level.
The heart and soul of this U.S. ski team is Alaska’s Kikkan Randall, who, at 33, can remember when she was the only American who could break the top 30 in a World Cup race. She’s a sprint specialist who was heavily favored to medal in the Sochi Olympics, only to miss advancing to the finals by .05 of a second. In 2013 she won the World Cup overall title in the sprint category, giving hope to every American racer. Along with another sprinter, Canada’s Chandra Crawford, a gold medalist in the 2006 Olympics, Randall formed Fast and Female, a nonprofit with the mission “to empower young women to remain in sport” and “dominate the world.”
This season has been a disappointment for Randall as she has struggled to find her form. But today her vision of convincing young women they can realize their dreams and accomplish any goal came alive as two American women stunned the skiing world and took the podium. After today’s race, in which she placed 15th, which not long ago would have been seen as a breakthrough U.S. performance, she rushed to her teammates and lifted them upward in a moment of sheer joy. They had dominated the world.