(l-r) Head Coach Chris Grover, Jessie Diggins, Sadie Bjornsen, Liz Stephen, Kikkan Randall and Women's Coach Matt Whitcomb smile in the finish of the women's relay. (U.S. Ski Team-Tom Kelly)
LAHTI, Finland (Mar. 2, 2017) - In an event that has become a focal point at World Championships, the USA finished fourth Thursday in the women’s 4x5k relay. Norway took its fourth straight gold in the event with Sweden taking silver and Finland bronze.
For the American women, it was a day of intense pride mixed with disappointment. It was the third straight world championships in which the USA was fourth. What was different this time was that the Americans came in feared as a medal contender by most all of the traditional major nations in the sport.
“We didn’t come here to finish fourth, we came here to win,” said Jessie Diggins (Afton, MN). “But we worked so hard and I’m really proud of my team today.”
Going into the race, Norway was a heavy favorite with a lineup stacked with medalists. Sweden and home country Finland were expected to battle for the medals alongside the Americans, with Germany and Russia also anticipated to be in the hunt.
Kikkan Randall kicks off the first leg in the relay. (Getty Images-Matthias Hangst)
On the opening leg, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk set a strong classic pace to take an early lead before Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla moved out to a seven-second lead over Poland, Sweden and Finland. Kikkan Randall (Anchorage) skied the opening leg, 25 seconds back from the lead and 16 seconds from the medals.
“I knew the pace was going to be really fast on the first of two laps today and sure it enough, it was,” said Randall. “I felt pretty good. I think the skis were really fast today and just tried to keep it close.”
APU Coach Erik Flora cheers on Sadie Bjornsen on her leg. (Getty Images-Richard Heathcote)
Sadie Bjornsen (Winthrop, WA) took the reigns on the second classic leg. Kerttu Niskanen, energized by her brother’s gold a day earlier in the 15k classic, moved Finland into the lead with Norway second and Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla dropping 11.7 seconds back. Bjornsen moved the USA into fourth, 36.2 seconds off the lead and 24 seconds from the medals pack.
“I definitely took it out hot there to chase those girls as quick as I could,” said Bjornsen, who won bronze in the classic team sprint with Diggins. “It was slightly intimidating because it’s some of the better classic skiers in the world, but I tried to not think about that and just kept my eyes on the prize. As we came through the hills, I would see them in short sections and then they would disappear but I tried to just keep fighting for every single section.”
On the first skating leg, Norway’s Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen charged out to dramatically extend the lead with a 56.7-second margin. Sweden and Finland joined forces, skiing together and exchanging the lead back and forth for the silver and bronze medals. Liz Stephen (E. Montpelier, VT) took the leg for the USA, dropping the margin to medals to 22 seconds.
Liz Stephen skates in the third leg. (Getty Images-Richard Heathcote)
On the anchor leg, Diggins took on the task of closing the gap skiing aggressively out of the start, charging up the hills and slicing precious seconds off the lead. But in the end, the gap was too much to close.
“We’re really proud of these girls—not just for the result, but for the way they executed the plan today,” said Coach Matt Whitcomb. “It’s not a given to be on the podium. It’s not something that just happens. Everybody shared the success of being fourth and a little piece of not being in contact on our final leg.”
With Finland and Sweden battling together, but also sharing the draft, it was clear on the final lap how important it was to be in contact with the medals group. “What we know, and what we’ll take away from this, is that we absolutely must maintain contact with our leaders, said Whitcomb. “If we do, at that point, we can launch a medal assault.”
The girls kept it positive, still excited to be in fourth place, and look towards medal opportunities at PyeongChang and the next World Championships in Seefeld, Austria. "To be honest, I feel like I’ve won gold just by being on this team," said Stephen. "I have the best teammates I could possibly imagine. Whether I finish my career with a medal from this event to share with these girls or not, I have the one that I care about: the friendships and amazing support I’ve received and given from this team."
The four ladies hug it out in the finish. (U.S. Ski Team-Tom Kelly)
The men’s relay 4x10k relay is set for Friday. The championships close this weekend with the women’s 30k freestyle Saturday and men’s 50k freestyle Sunday.
The USA finished fourth in the women’s 4x5k relay Thursday at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships.
It was the third straight World Championships with the Americans finishing one spot out of the medals.
Norway won for the fourth straight time at worlds, with Sweden taking silver and Finland bronze.
Kikkan Randall I knew the pace was going to be really fast on the first of two laps today and sure it enough, it was. So I just tried to stay close. I felt pretty good. I think the skis were really fast today and just tried to keep it close.
It’s so exciting to be able to compete on the relay today. That’s been a big goal all season. Our team is so strong. It was a hard team to make, but it was exciting to be named to the team today. I wanted to hold up my end of the deal. It was great to have a solid championships.
Sadie Bjornsen It was really exciting for Kik to tag off with a little carrot to chase in the front there. I definitely took it out hot there to chase those girls as quick as I could. It was slightly intimidating because it’s some of the better classic skiers in the world, but I tried to not think about that and just kept my eyes on the prize. As we came through the hills, I would see them in short sections and then they would disappear but I tried to just keep fighting for every single section. I had really great skis today and had a lot of fun klister skiing, so that was nice and refreshing. Then I tagged off to Liz and finished feeling like I gave it all out there, which is always a really nice feeling when you’re in a relay because that’s what it’s all about.
Liz Stephen I was working off the energy of the other girls that went before me. I was really inspired by both of them—and especially by Sadie just going for it right off the bat. She just closed so much. I think we all went and did what we could today. Some days it’s going to go perfectly and some days it isn’t. I think today went as perfectly as it could go for us. We’ve been trying to get this medal in the last three championships and I know it’s coming.
To be honest, I feel like I’ve won gold just by being on this team. I have the best teammates I could possibly imagine. Whether I finish my career with a medal from this event to share with these girls or not, I have the one that I care about: the friendships and amazing support I’ve received and given from this team.
Jessie Diggins We just had a relaxed morning and then had all of the girls over and I got to paint everyone’s faces and put glitter on the girls and the staff. That was so fun and so awesome. We have just this really positive team vibe. We’re all going out there to ski for each other. That’s the most powerful thing there is. We all went out there and fought as hard as we could every single second.
For me, being the anchor leg, I was keeping tabs on the race while I was doing my warmup and I felt really warm and ready to go. I was psyched and super nervous and ready to go out and ski as hard as I could. I figured the only play I can make is to go out there and go as hard as I can—hoping that if they were playing cat and mouse, I could catch them and hold on. That’s the only thing I can do because we were for sure locked into fourth. I went for it and I was able to decrease the time at first, but I didn’t get closer than I think 13 seconds. Then they really put the gas on and I wasn’t able to close the gap. But I fought as hard as I could.
We had really great skis—but so did the other teams, unfortunately! Our staff works so hard and I’m just really proud to be part of this team. This is my favorite event ever. To be out there, skiing with the glitter and the face paint, skiing my heart out for team USA was really special.
Matt Whitcomb We’re really proud of these girls—not just for the result, but for the way they executed the plan today. It’s not a given to be on the podium. It’s not something that just happens. Everything has to just go exceptionally well on all four legs. The beauty of today is that it didn’t come from one person. There wasn’t one area where we could have done a little bit better. I think the difference was that everybody shared the success of being fourth and a little piece of not being in contact on our final leg. What we know, and what we’ll take away from this, is that we absolutely must maintain contact with our leaders and at that point, we can launch a medal assault. Today was a great performance by the girls. The wax team put fantastic boards out on the snow. We’re really proud; it’s just a great feeling, in general. We’ll be back.
Behind us, there were several teams with almost equal depth. To put a fantastic day together could have also meant seventh place. That’s how competitive this field is.