Jessie Diggins finished sixth in the opening event of the Tour de Ski in Val Mustair, Switzerland Saturday. (Getty Images-Fabrice Coffrini)
VAL MUSTAIR, Switzerland (Dec. 31, 2016) - American Jessie Diggins (Afton, MN) put in a strong performance on New Year’s Eve day to open the 11th running of the Tour de Ski finishing sixth in the freestyle sprint.
Sweden’s Stina Nilsson took the women’s win with Russia’s Sergey Ustiugov the dominant winner for men with a margin of more than two seconds.
Diggins kicked off the first day of racing in the seven-stage Tour with a solid opening heat - the fastest of the round - finishing second, .52 behind Nilsson. She was also matched up with Nilsson in the semifinals, finishing third, but again, a fast heat that put her into the finals as a lucky loser.
In the finals, no one could match up with Nilsson. Diggins fell behind at the start and had to constantly work to keep up with the torrid pace being set by Nilsson, who skied a full two seconds faster than her semifinal time to take a win by 2.48 seconds - huge by sprint standards.
“I was happy with a good start to the Tour and especially since I didn’t know what to expect after being sick and not having quite the training I wanted during break,” said Diggins. “It’s always nerve-wracking when you haven’t raced in a while, but it felt good to get back at it and I’m excited for the rest of the Tour. Our staff did a great job and delivered great skis, and it was fun to race on a course with some rollers and fun downhills!”
Kikkan Randall skied to a 15th place finish in Saturday’s first stage. (Getty Images-Nils Petter Nilsson)
The USA was strong in qualifying with Simi Hamilton (Aspen, CO) 14th fastest, but going out in the quarterfinals. Sophie Caldwell (Peru, VT) was fifth fastest, Sadie Bjornsen (Anchorage) eighth, Diggins ninth and Kikkan Randall (Anchorage) just sneaking into the heats in 29th.
Bjornsen skied a strong quarterfinal heat, leading most of the way, before dropping back in the final 100 meters to finish fifth. Caldwell was challenged getting up to the front in her quarterfinals, but negotiated her way in the final meters but narrowly missed second in a photo finish, taking third in a slow heat and not being able to advance.
Behind Diggins in sixth for the USA were Caldwell 13th, Randall 15th and Bjornsen 23rd. Hamilton ended up 18th.
Randall’s performance was a bright spot in her return to the World Cup after a year off. In each race since her return a month ago she has incremented her results, this time sneaking into the finals and coming away with a strong finish.
“Today definitely felt like another step forward toward getting my race sharpness back,” said birthday girl Randall. “My qualifier was decent and I felt like I had more punch in my quarter final. Tough to just miss the lucky loser spot because I was feeling stronger as I went and actually felt competitive for the first time this season. Still lots of racing ahead, though, so I am satisfied with today as a good start and am feeling good about the races ahead.”
The seven-stage Tour de Ski continues Sunday in Val Mustair with classic technique mass starts - 10k for men and 5k for women. NBC Sports will live stream the events with men at 7:00 a.m. EST and women at 10:00 a.m. EST.
Same-day broadcast coverage will be carried on Universal HD with Saturday’s sprint airing at 7:00 p.m. EST. Sunday’s mass start events are set at 6:30 p.m. for men and 7:30 p.m. for women.