Jessie Diggins Finishes Sixth In 2022 Olympic Skiathlon
by Peggy Shinn
Jessie Diggins competes during the women's cross country 7.5km + 7.5km skiathlon at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb.5, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.
ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Jessie Diggins came to the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 knowing that if she left everything on the course — if she tore herself inside out — then she would consider her races here successful, podium or no podium.
In the first medal event of these Winter Games — the cross-country skiathlon — Diggins did just that. On a cold windy day, she crossed the line in sixth place with nothing left. Her time of 45:04.02 was 50.5 seconds behind gold medalist Therese Johaug from Norway, who skied away with the race in 44.13.7.
“My goals for today were to keep fighting, to never give up, to ski with the best technique I could,” said Diggins as a frigid breeze continued to blow. “And I feel so good to have one race under my belt.”
In a promising sign for her upcoming Olympic races, Diggins skied the fastest 7.5-kilometer freestyle leg. (In the skiathlon, the women ski 7.5-kilometers in the classic technique, then switch skis and poles and race another 7.5-kilometers using the freestyle or skate technique.)
Diggins was more than seven seconds faster than Johaug in the skate portion of the race. For the past decade, 33-year-old Johaug has dominated women’s distance skiing. She is the reigning skiathlon world champion, a title she has held three times. And she has 14 world championship titles to her name.
“I'm really proud of [my race],” Diggins said. “I definitely wish I had a better classic half, but the skate half was some of the best racing of my life, especially at altitude. And mostly I'm so proud of that.”
The 2022 skiathlon gold medal is Johaug’s first individual Olympic gold medal. Her only other gold medal is from the team relay at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
Thirty seconds behind Johaug, Natalia Nepryaeva from the Russian Olympic Committee battled it out with Austria’s Teresa Stadlober for the remaining medals, with Nepryaeva — the current overall world cup leader — taking silver by three tenths of a second.
The race started late on a sunny, cold day in Zhangjiakou. Temperatures were in the single digits with a brisk north wind. Brutal was the word most skiers used to describe the conditions.
Team USA’s Rosie Brennan, 33, took the early lead, setting the pace in the classic leg until Johaug took over. Brennan hung with the leaders for several kilometers, then dropped off the pace and ended up 14th.
Brennan described her race as “part good, part ugly, part in between.” But mostly, she felt vindicated in her second Olympic Games. Four years ago, she was suffering from mononucleosis and did not yet know it. She competed in the skiathlon at the 2018 PyeongChang Games and finished almost last. Until today, it was her only Olympic race.
“I had a demon in the back of my mind that I needed to get rid of,” admitted Brennan, who grew up in Park City, Utah, but now lives in Anchorage, Alaska. “To be in a better place today, even if it wasn’t my best, was a step in the right direction and something that I’m proud of.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Beijing 2022? Visit TeamUSA.org/Beijing-2022-Olympic-Games to view the competition schedule, medal table and results.
(L-R) Kerttu Niskanen of Team Finland, Rosie Brennan of Team USA and Teresa Stadlober of Team Austria compete during the women's cross country 7.5km + 7.5km skiathlon at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 5, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.
Team USA fielded a full team of four skiers in the women’s skiathlon, and first-time Olympians Hailey Swirbul and Julia Kern finished 40th and 53rd, respectively.
Swirbul, 23, grew up in Aspen, Colorado, and was the skiathlon bronze medalist at the 2018 junior world championships. Kern, 24, is a U23 world championship sprint bronze medalist and grew up in Massachusetts. She now trains in Stratton, Vermont, with Diggins.
“I felt like I was on an arctic expedition by myself out there,” joked Swirbul, who was caught in a wind-driven mini blizzard at one point in the race. “There were moments where it was harder than others. But when you’re in it, you put your game face on and just race.”
The 2022 Olympic skiathlon was the first international cross-country race since the Tour de Ski concluded a month ago. Several world cups were canceled in January due to the COVID-19 surge in Europe. A 15-kilometer race at the Olympic Games was a tough re-introduction to the pain of competing at this level.
“I’m hoping it woke up the body after not racing for a month,” said Kern, who is more of a sprinter than a distance skier.
“I’m really hoping that today was what I needed to get back into things,” added Brennan, who is considered a medal contender at these Games after leading the world cup standings for several weeks last year. “I’ve had workouts that have indicated that I’m in good shape, so I want more, and I think I can get more.”
Diggins is happy too with where she is mentally and physically as these Winter Games begin.
Four years ago, she finished fifth in the 2018 Olympic skiathlon, just 4.6 seconds from a medal. It was a sign of things to come in those Games. Eleven days later, she and Kikkan Randall won the U.S. first Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing.
Their gold medal added momentum to the U.S. cross-country team.
“We’ve shown over the last four years and beyond what we’re capable of as a team,” said Swirbul, who scored her first world cup podium finish last year, “and we have just built momentum from the last Games.”
In China, the women are facing similar conditions to those in Korea — cold temperatures, frigid winds, and cold dry snow. But in the 2022 Olympic skiathlon, the wind was blowing straight into the athletes’ faces in the finish stretch.
“They are definitely as hard as they look,” said Diggins of the racecourses. But ‘hard’ to Diggins is not a four-letter word.
“They should be, right? We’re a really challenging sport. I love it. You’ve really got to work hard for it.”
The women race again in two days in the freestyle sprint — a race in which Diggins is heavily favored.
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Beijing covering her seventh Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.