Jessie Diggins Leads A Deep & Talented Team At 2021 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships
by Peggy Shinn
Jessie Diggins wins the Tour de Ski in the overall standings during the COOP FIS Cross-Country Stage World Cup Women's 10 km Free Mass Start on Jan. 10, 2021 in Val Di Fiemme, Italy.
At the start of the 2020/2021 FIS World Cup tour, uncertainty hung in the air. Races were on the schedule, but how many would be canceled. And how would skiers hold up under all the restrictions? Matt Whitcomb, head coach of the U.S. cross-country ski team, had a pit in his stomach.
Despite all the challenges—and perhaps even because of them—the U.S. team has had its best season ever, with several cross-country skiers scoring their best finishes ever, including Jessie Diggins, who became the first non-European to win the Tour de Ski in January.
Now, Team USA is poised to continue its historic season at the 42nd FIS Nordic World Ski Championships that open on Monday in the Bavarian town of Oberstdorf, Germany.
Diggins—currently the number one ranked skier in the world—leads a deep team of veteran women and up-and-coming skiers who have all tasted success. A four-time world championship medalist, Diggins is a favorite in every event she enters and will hopefully anchor the U.S. women to a breakthrough medal in the 4x5km relay.
But it’s not just the women to watch at this year’s world championships. The U.S. men’s cross-country team is showing promise.
“Were you to ask me what the events I'm most excited for at this upcoming world championships, it might not be the ones that we are expected to medal in,” said Whitcomb. “It might be ones that we are expected to break-through in.”
Whitcomb sees the men’s performances this year as “just the tip of the iceberg” in terms of where the team is headed—especially 2020 junior world champion Gus Schumacher, who will be competing in his first senior world championship.
“I’m really looking forward to bringing a well-rounded team across both genders [to world championships],” added Whitcomb. “Across sprint and distance skiing, we’re ready to go.”
And in Nordic combined, Tara Geraghty-Moats is a favorite to bring home the first women’s title in the discipline’s world championship debut. The 27-year-old won the inaugural women’s Nordic combined world cup in December—the only women’s Nordic combined world cup held to date.
Here’s how Team USA could shine over the next two weeks.
Jessie Diggins, World Leader
Since winning the Tour de Ski, Diggins has had the coveted yellow bib—worn by the overall world cup leader. And she will likely become the first American cross-country skier to win the overall world cup title since Olympic silver medalist Bill Koch claimed it in 1982.
And it’s no fluke. Diggins has stood on the podium this year in both sprint and distance races, individual and mass start, classic and freestyle. Notably, three weeks after winning the Tour de Ski, Diggins beat Norway’s three-time world cup leader Therese Johaug in a 10-kilometer freestyle race. Diggins is the first skier from any country to best the “unbeatable” Johaug in an individual-start distance race since March 2016.
“Jessie for a long time has been known as more of a skate competitor who does extremely well in head-to-head competitions,” noted Whitcomb. “What people are starting to understand is that there is no race that she can be counted out any longer.”
Whitcomb credited Diggins’s years of hard work and her attention to technique, especially in classic skiing, which takes both finesse and power.
“She’s a much more efficient skier now, and she’s able to be with the pack through the gamut of races,” explained Whitcomb. “As you all know, if Jessie is in the pack with a kilometer to go, people are in trouble.”
The team has yet to determine which skiers will compete in the six races. Diggins is a heavy favorite in the 10k freestyle (skate) individual-start race; she won a silver medal in this event at the 2015 world championships. She could also do equally well in the other three individual races (classic sprint, skiathlon, 30k classic) and will likely be a key player in the team sprint and 4x5k relay.
As for the 30k classic—the last women’s race at worlds—Diggins is uncertain if she will compete in it. As of now, the rest of the world cup races have been canceled due to the pandemic. If make-up races are added to the schedule, Diggins would likely skip the 30k to rest for the final world cups.
And if she does retain the world cup title—which she is favored to win—it will be another lifelong goal achieved.
“It’s always been a big dream of mine to be able to show up ready to play, no matter what it is, distance, sprint, classic, skate, skiathlon, whatever it is, I want to show up and be ready to give it my best fight,” she said. “I'm finally getting to that place in my career, and I’m really excited about that.”
Strong Team Dynamic
Ask anyone on the U.S. cross-country ski team what brings out their best, and they credit the team’s strong dynamic, particularly this year when the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown countless challenges and much uncertainty into the season. But for the U.S. skiers, who are away from home for months each winter, they are no strangers to challenges.
“That go-get-them attitude and ability to rely on our teammates has made us really resilient this season,” explained Rosie Brennan, who won two world cup races in December and sits third in the overall world cup standings. “Certainly, the pandemic has caused challenges for us, but I think this is a team that really welcomes challenge, and we have all embraced it and done our best to make things happen. It just speaks volumes about the type of team we have.”
With team acting as family, supporting each other on good days and bad, the skiers find that they get back as much as they give to their teammates. Able to laugh at snafus and roll with uncertainty, they are not easily riled.
Diggins likes to quote her friend, two-time Olympic mountain biker Lea Davison: “Happiness is fast.”
“When I’m happy, that’s when I can really push hard in a race because everything else in my life is going well, so I can really suffer for those 26 minutes of a race,” said Diggins.
“What I’m going to look back on and be the most grateful [for this season] is how we pulled it tight together as a team and really trusted one another,” she added.
Women’s Team Is Deep
Diggins is not the only medal contender on the U.S. women’s team this year. Every woman on the 2021 worlds’ team has made a world cup or world junior podium, including a handful of young skiers competing in their first senior worlds.
Rosie Brennan and Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, teammates from Alaska, are two other veterans who will lead the team at worlds.
Brennan, like Diggins, is a versatile cross-country skier who earned her first world cup wins in December. She came into the season charging, fearing that the pandemic would disrupt the season.
“My plan for the year was to come in ready to race in case those were the only races of the year,” Brennan explained.
She carried her momentum into the Tour de Ski, where she finished on the podium twice and sixth overall, ceding the world cup lead to Diggins on the final day (Brennan still sits in third).
Now, with the rest of the world cup canceled and uncertainty about make-up races, Brennan is again “racing for broke.”
“I’m really looking forward to the 10k skate and the relay,” she said. “I made a lot of gains this year in my technical, tactical racing, and I think it gives me a chance in a lot of different events.”
A strong classic skier, Brennan will likely be a factor in the skiathlon as well.
Maubet Bjornsen—2017 world championship bronze medalist—joined the team in late January after skipping the first two world cup periods. It was the first time in seven years that she spent Christmas with her family.
She arrived on the world cup “happier than normal” and feeling strong and confident on her skis—and energized.
“I call it my Ruka energy,” she said, referring to Ruka, Finland, host of the first world cup races each season. Maubet Bjornsen usually does well there.
A strong classic skier, look for her to contend in the classic sprint, among other races.
In the past decade, the U.S. women’s team has brought their strong team chemistry and joie de vivre to the team events. For every relay and team sprint, they don face paint and glitter and pull on their striped knee-high “relay” socks—which are regularly washed, assured Diggins.
So it’s surprising that they have yet to earn a world championship or Olympic medal in the 4x5k relay. It was the event in which they first broke through in 2012—finishing third in an early-season world cup relay. Since then, most of the women have scored more world cup podium-finishes.
But at world championships and the Olympic Games, the relay has eluded them. For three consecutive world championships, from 2013-2017, the U.S. women finished fourth. At the 2018 Olympic Winter Games and 2019 worlds, they finished fifth.
“It’s killed me that we haven’t gotten a medal in the 4x5 event yet,” said Maubet Bjornsen. “Last summer, I set a goal to race that specific race. That was the thing that I thought of every day.”
With such a deep women’s team, this could be the year. But selecting four for the relay will be a challenge.
“We don’t have one person doing well,” said Maubet Bjornsen. “We have six to eight.”
A Breakthrough For the Men?
In the mid-2000s, Andy Newell broke through with podiums in world cup sprinting. Then Simi Hamilton followed him, with four world cup sprint podiums of his own. They were the first U.S. cross-country skiers since Bill Koch to stand on the world cup podium.
But at world championships, the U.S. men’s cross-country ski team hasn’t won a medal since Koch skied to a bronze in the 30k in 1982.
Hamilton is one of the veterans on the 2021 U.S. worlds team, and the 33-year-old will lead the sprinters, including Kevin Bolger, Logan Hanneman, and 20-year-old JC Schoonmaker, who is competing in his first full winter on the world cup.
Most of the hype surrounds the young blood on the team, led by Alaskan Gus Schumacher, also 20 and racing his first full season on the world cup. A world junior champion, Schumacher has transitioned seamlessly to senior-level competition. Every weekend, he learns from his fellow competitors and does “mental gymnastics,” convincing himself that he really can hang with the best.
“Scrapping against these guys very weekend, even if you’re top 30, you’re not that far out,” he said.
Schumacher turned heads—including his own—when he finished eighth in a 15k classic race, less than eight seconds from the podium, during the 2021 Tour de Ski.
“Being so close to the front in the last three minutes, that was a day where I was like, holy crap, I need to realign my goals,” he said. “I got to the end and I was like, I’ve got to be thinking about a podium here, which is crazy in a world cup. I wasn’t picking people off anymore. It was like how do I beat these guys in the end?”
It was a feeling he wants to keep chasing.
“I’m looking forward to being in my best race form [for worlds],” said Schumacher, “and having another shot at that feeling of reaching a medal.”
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. For more about the U.S. women’s cross-country ski team and how they built a winning team, check out Shinn’s book, World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team (2018).