ZANGJIAKO, CHINA – The great Norwegian Therese Johaug won her third gold medal at the Beijing Olympics on Sunday and Jesse Diggins took the silver for the best American result in an individual cross-country skiing event since 1976.
In the face of high winds and harsh temperatures, Johaug took an early lead in the 30km group start race and went on to win in 1 hour 24 minutes 54 seconds. Johaug also won the ski race – the first gold medal in the Olympics – and the 10km classic.
“I was born in a small place with very strong winds and very cold temperatures in the area, so that was nothing for me,” Johog said.
Diggins, who has also skated solo for most of the race, kept a steady pace behind the Norwegian as storms pounded across the tracks and hit the skaters, many with duct tape on their faces to protect from the cold. She landed after crossing the finish line, 1:43.3 behind Gohog.
“Every last drop of energy went into this race,” Diggins said. “The last couple of sessions, my legs have been cramping. We’ve had great cheers there, and I thought, I can’t give up, I should just put everything in my snow today and finish with nothing. I tried really, really hard.”
Diggins said she had been sick with food poisoning the day before, and had spent Saturday in bed and force-fed herself.
“I’ve been feeling really bad for 24 hours,” the American said. “I was talking to my parents and my mom said, ‘Don’t decide how you feel right now. Just go out there and skate because you love racing. And she was right.
“This was probably the best race of my entire life, I’m not going to lie,” said Diggins. “It was also probably the hardest race of my entire life.”
Kerttu Niskanen of Finland led a chase group to the bronze medal streak, 2:33.3 behind.
“I told myself, ‘I’ve finished fourth too many times (expletive),’ I will never finish fourth again,” Niskanen said. “It wasn’t too bad during the race. In fact, standing here is much worse than doing media interviews.”
Diggins made cross-country skiing history for the United States at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics when she and Kikkan Randall won the team race – the country’s first gold medal in the sport. Diggins set another US Olympic record at the Beijing Olympics by being the first woman to win an individual medal when she took the bronze in the sprint.
The silver medal matched an American’s best result in an individual cross-country skiing event. Bill Koch won the silver medal in the men’s 30 km race at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck.
Temperatures were hovering around minus 14 degrees Celsius (6.8 degrees Fahrenheit) on Sunday but the cold winds made it even cooler. The women made four laps on a 7.5-kilometre (4.6-mile) track.
Johaug pushed the pace on the first lap, creating a long line of single skaters cruising around corners and slopes.
At the first checkpoint at 2.9 kilometers, Johaug, Diggins, Ebba Andersson of Sweden and Delphine Claudel of France created a gap. Rosie Brennan, Krista Barmakowski and Niskanen were behind by nearly seven seconds, but the difference had increased to 28 seconds by the end of the first lap.
World Cup leader Natalia Nebrieva slipped and was knocked out of the race before the end of the first lap. At the 8.8 kilometer mark, Claudel lagged behind.
Johaug moved away from the leaders by about 10 km, with Diggins and then Anderson chasing after. The Norwegian maintained her trademark fast climbing pace, but Diggins stayed close, trailing by nearly 23 seconds.
Halfway, Johaug led Diggins by 27 seconds with Andersson trailing 1:15.
With one lap to go and Johaug and Diggins in front, the chase group caught Andersson and Niskanen advanced in a sprint.
Brennan said training in the cold helped her stay in sixth, with a 2:38.7 lead.
“Fortunately, I’ve spent the past decade training in Alaska,” said the American. “We had some pretty miserable days in training, so I tried to think about these days and remind myself that I am strong enough to handle everything and that everyone faces the same circumstances. Those who put their heads down can make it happen.”