NewsRosie Brennan

U.S. Team Finishes Sixth In 2022 Olympic Women’s Cross-Country Relay

by Peggy Shinn

Hailey Swirbul reacts during the women's cross-country 4x5-kilometer relay during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 12, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.


ZHANGJIAKOU, China — When 2018 Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall saw the lineup for the U.S. women’s 4x5-kilometer relay team at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing, she was excited. The relay was “wide open,” she messaged from Connecticut where she is calling the cross-country races for NBC.
With Hailey Swirbul and Rosie Brennan skiing the first two classic legs of the relay at the Zhangjiakou National Cross-Country Skiing Centre, and Novie McCabe and Jessie Diggins taking the two freestyle legs, Randall knew that Team USA could win its first Olympic relay medal. 
Diggins is a two-time Olympic medalist. Brennan led the overall world cup rankings for several weeks last year and scored wins. And McCabe and Swirbul — both first-time Olympians — have both won junior world championship medals in the relay.
These four women donned the U.S.’s trademark striped socks — that the team debuted 10 years ago today — put glitter on their cheeks and headed out to the course. Halfway around the world, even Randall was wearing her old striped relay socks.
Unfortunately, the U.S. women could not quite match up to Randall’s prediction. Diggins anchored the team to sixth place — just over a minute from a medal.
Still, the four women were smiling after the race.
“We gave it everything we had,” said Diggins. “Some days, that ends up in the results of your life, and some days it doesn't. But either way, all you can control is going out there as hard and as smart as you can, and this team did that.”

Jessie Diggins competes women's cross-country 4x5-kilometer relay during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 12, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.


At the front, the relay did not play out as expected — with Norway winning (in the past decade, they have won 17 of 21 relays). Instead, the Russian Olympic Committee charged off the front on the first hill, and although the Germans tried to take over, the ROC ended up winning in 53:41.0. It is their first Olympic relay win since the 1998 Winter Games.
Germany held on for silver in 53:59.2. And Sweden beat Finland for the bronze, crossing the line in 54:01.7.
Norway ended up fifth, finishing a minute ahead of the Americans.
“That's what relay day is, it's a chance for anything to happen,” said Brennan. “[Germany has] been skiing great this week. I think it's really awesome to get some new faces on the podium.”
The U.S. women’s cross-country team had come to the 2022 Winter Games hoping that their faces would be the new ones on the relay podium. They are known for their strong team bond that has helped lift everyone’s game. And they have always wanted to show their depth in the team relay. 
Their first success in the 4x5km relay came a decade ago — to the day. At that point, Randall was the only American woman on the team who was finishing on the world cup podium; it was Diggins’s first full year competing on the world cup tour. 
One day in January 2012, Randall found red-white-and-blue striped Pippi Longstocking socks at a German convenience store. Thinking these fun socks would bring some much-needed team spirit to the squad, she bought pairs for everyone on the team.
Their first opportunity to wear them came on February 12, 2012, in a 4x5km relay in the Czech Republic. The American women donned the striped socks (and glitter on their cheeks) and finished the relay in fifth — their best relay finish ever.
It ignited a fire of belief within the team. Since then, the U.S. women’s cross-country team has stood on the world cup relay podium five times (in 13 relays). They get excited for relays; pulling on the striped socks and painting their cheeks with glitter has become a regular ritual.

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Rosie Brennan reacts during women's cross-country 4x5-kilometer relay during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 12, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.


But on the Olympic and world championship stage, they have yet to breakthrough to the relay podium. They came close last February at the 2021 world championships when Diggins battled with Finland’s Krista Parmakoski in the freestyle anchor leg. Diggins is one of the best 5k skiers in the world, with three world cup wins on her resume. 
But in the final kilometer, Parmakoski pulled away to take the last medal up for grabs — the bronze. Having given it her all, Diggins crossed the line 1.2 seconds later.
Diggins has been a mainstay on the U.S. relay squad, most often anchoring it. Brennan has also been a regular in the past few years. But with the retirement of veterans who had been on the podium-winning relays over the years — Olympians Randall, Liz Stephen, Sadie Maubet-Bjornsen, Holly Brooks, Sophie Caldwell Hamilton, and Ida Sargent — who would fill out the other two spots?
Along came junior world championship medalists Swirbul and McCabe.
Swirbul, 23, is the younger sister of pro cyclist Keegan Swirbul, and the two grew up in Aspen, Colorado. She followed her brother into cross-country skiing as cross-training for mountain biking when she was 10. She was good at cross-country skiing, so it became her main sport. At the 2018 junior world championships, Swirbul became the first American to win two medals in individual events. She also competed in 2017 world juniors, winning a bronze medal in the relay. 
In the 2022 Olympic relay, Swirbul was slated to ski the first leg. Brennan reminded her to ski her own race and not let anyone else dictate the pace.
“I really enjoyed the first leg of the relay, that's become something I really look forward to,” Swirbul said.

Novie McCabe competes during the women's cross-country 4x5-kilometer relay during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 12, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.


McCabe is the 20-year-old daughter of two-time Olympian Laura McCabe, who competed in cross-country skiing at the 1994 and 1998 Olympic Winter Games. She anchored the U.S. team to a silver medal at the 2020 junior world championships and made her world cup debut just four months ago. Then she opened eyes by finishing seventh in the final stage of the 2022 Tour de Ski — the 10km freestyle race that ends by climbing an alpine ski trail at Italy’s Alpe Cermis. From Winthrop, Washington (hometown of Maubet-Bjornsen),

In her first senior relay, McCabe was nervous but was thrilled to be competing on the same team as Diggins, Brennan, and Swirbul — women whom she called legends. But she received no advice from her mom.

“Actually, I haven’t talked to her in a few days,” McCabe said, as her teammates laughed.

In her relay leg, McCabe started hunting down those in front of her, catching Switzerland and moving the U.S. into sixth. 

Brennan had tagged McCabe after a tough leg. In the second classic leg of the relay, Brennan had had to ski against Natalia Nepryaeva (current overall world cup leader) and distance dominators Therese Johaug from Norway and Ebba Andersson from Sweden. 

“My leg was full of the heavy hitters, so I knew I had a tough job ahead of me,” Brennan said. “I tried to ski smart but also find something extra to dig a little deep. I knew there was going to be some hard fighting at the end.”

When Diggins took off on the last leg, she “swung for the fences” and hoped the Scandinavian trio ahead of her would slow as they jostled for position. With the ROC and Germany off the front, three women (Sweden, Finland, and Norway) were battling for the bronze medal. The trio did not slow down, but Diggins still laid it out there.

“You can go in and just shoot for the moon and see what happens,” said Diggins with a smile. “Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn't, but it's always a good time.”

As for Randall’s striped socks, Diggins was glad to hear that her former teammate and fellow Olympic gold medalist had them.

“We've been missing a pair for two years,” joked Diggins. “That explains a lot!”

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Beijing covering her seventh Olympic Games. She has contributed to since its inception in 2008.