On Wednesday, two Americans earned the U.S. cross-country skiing women's team its first gold medal ever. Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall finished first in the women's team sprint freestyle, finally ending what The New York Times called "one of the longest droughts in Olympic sports for the United States."
Randall and Diggins were favorites in the United States heading into the games; the hype was boosted by their gold medal win in the team sprint last year at the world championships. But until Wednesday, they hadn't been performing as well as they'd hoped at PyeongChang and instead were falling behind the Scandinavian teams that typically dominate cross-country skiing at the Olympics.
That changed when the women performed their signature race. The team sprint is a relay — in the women's event, two participants trade off skiing for three to six sections of a course, each of which is 0.8 to 1.6 km long. It involves sprinting up a steep incline.
"I think everyone knew we were going to walk away from these games with a medal," U.S. cross-country skier Simi Hamilton told The Tennessean. "I don't think anyone believed it would be a gold medal."
In fact, no U.S. cross-country team — male or female — had ever won a gold medal at the Olympics before. The United States had only been decorated once for the sport when Bill Koch won silver in the 30 km event in 1976. Compare that to Sweden's 74 medals (from the first Winter Olympics in 1924 until 2014), Finland's 76, the Soviet Union/Russia's 101, and Norway's 107.
Diggins had the race's final lap and entered it behind Norway and Sweden. She took the lead at the last moment, finishing 0.19 seconds in front of Swedish pair Charlotte Kalla and Stina Nilsson. Norway's Maiken Caspersen Falla and Marit Bjoergen came in third with a time 2.97 seconds slower than the U.S., but it was hardly a disappointing moment for Bjoergen: That bronze win was her 14th Olympic medal, making her the most decorated athlete ever for the winter games.
"It feels unreal," Diggins told The Guardian of the gold medal win. "I can’t believe it just happened, but we’ve been feeling so good these entire games and just having it happen at a team event means so much more to me than any individual medal ever would."
Expectations were particularly high for Diggins this Olympics. Coming off of her triumph with Randall in the 2017 world championships, as well as four individual gold medal victories at the World Cup and Stage World Cup in the last few years, Diggins has been performing better and better and has only just reached the age when cross-country skiers tend to peak (she's 26; skiers tend to be best in their late 20's and early 30's). The Guardian called her "one of America's best hopes for Olympic gold" this year.
She and Randall have been skiing together for years. They won a gold medal together in the same category, the team sprint, at the World Cup in 2012. Diggins credited her bond with Randall for delivering the inspiration she needed during the race's final lap on Wednesday.
"I just gave it everything that I had, because when you have a teammate you love and care about waiting at the finish, you're never gonna give up," she told The Tennessean.
At 35, Randall is significantly older than Diggins. She went to the Olympics for the first time in 2002 and has been five times altogether (Diggins has been once before). Randall barely missed a qualifying time for the sprint quarterfinals while at the 2014 Sochi games, for which she blamed an earlier back injury. Tendonitis in the foot, as well as a pregnancy, have also interfered with her training in the last couple of years, but she worked hard to get back into form for PyeongChang.
"It’s what I’ve been working on for 20 years and with this team for the last five years and wow, it’s just so fun to put it together tonight, finally," Randall told The Guardian, referring to her win with Diggins. "Hearing it out loud, it still doesn’t feel real."