‘It’s a whole new game’: After years of struggles, America’s cross country skiers have found their Olympic stride

Westminster College alum Jessie Diggins already has one medal in Beijing

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jessie Diggins (USA) competes in the cross-country skiing women’s 4 x 5km relay at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou, China, on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022.

Zhangjiakou, China • Cross country ski races are grueling affairs, but the 4x5-kilometer relay is its own special kind of torture.

Athletes’ hearts and lungs still rev up like a car in park with a foot on the gas pedal. They still sustain that redline effort long past the point of exhaustion. But they have only themselves to answer to if they capitulate to the screams of their muscles in an individual race. In the relay, they also have the hopes of three teammates strapped to their shoulders.

That burden weighs on athletes from some teams heavier than others. And nowhere is that more evident than in the mixed zone, the journalist-lined gauntlet that athletes must pass through as they exit the race. While the 2022 Olympic women’s relay played out Saturday at the Zhangjiakou National Cross Country Center, racers from nations such as the Czech Republic and Japan and Kazakhstan passed through the chute. They stopped to take questions on everything from their race strategy to their favorite food in the athletes’ village, all while their teammates labored on the course behind them.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hailey Swirbul (USA) competes in the cross-country skiing women’s 4 x 5km relay at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou, China, on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022.

Anyone wanting to talk to the Americans, however, would have to wait.

Though they were likely out of medal contention by the end of the second leg, each of the athletes stayed on the infield, using any energy recovered after their leg to cheer their teammates onward. When they finally made their appearance, they arrived as a group. Asked why they stayed for the entire race, the women looked confused. Was there any other option?

“Team event,” said Jessie Diggins, a former Westminster College student.

“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” chimed in Novie McCabe, a freshman on the University of Utah ski team.

That all-for-one, one-for-all attitude has been a focus of Team USA’s women’s cross country ski team for a few Olympic cycles now. It’s what the athletes point to as the reason, after years of being mostly inconsequential in the international field, the Americans can no longer be overlooked.

As Park City native Rosie Brennan said, “It’s a whole new game.”

The most obvious marker of Team USA’s progress is the gold medal Diggins and Salt Lake City native Kikkan Randall won in the team relay at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang. It was just the second Olympic medal of any kind in American cross country history. The previous medal was a silver won by Bill Koch 42 years earlier at the 1976 Games in Innsbruck.

It wasn’t just a fluke, either. Already at these Olympics, Diggins, the reigning World Cup champion, made more history by taking the bronze in the sprint. It’s the first individual medal by a woman in the country’s history. Brennan was right on her tips in fourth. And though the USA didn’t medal, they were never out of the hunt in Saturday’s relay, finishing sixth overall.

“I’m really, really proud of this team. Every single one of these girls went out and skied such hard and gutsy races, and we gave it everything we have,” Diggins said Saturday. “And some days that ends up in the result 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, and so I am so, so proud. And I think walking away from this, I have a really great feeling. I’m excited for races to come.”

One of those races was Wednesday’s classic team sprint classic, in which Diggins and Brennan tried to defend the USA’s gold medal. Sort of. Every Olympics the race alternates between classic technique and freestyle, so in many ways, as Diggins pointed out, it was a completely different race.

The result was different as well. After hanging around the upper to middle section of the pack all race, Diggins appeared to run out of steam on the final uphill and the Americans wound up fifth in a race won by Germany in a sprint to the finish over Sweden.

One more race remains: Sunday’s 30k mass start, which both Diggins and Brennan said they expect to race.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rosie Brennan (USA) competes in the cross-country skiing women’s 4 x 5km relay at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou, China, on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022.

A couple of Olympics ago, the cross country races would hardly merit tuning into. Now, the U.S. consistently positions itself as a legitimate medal contender.

The key to the turnaround isn’t necessarily more talent, though the U.S. has plenty of it, or better waxing, though that, too, has been the focus of much attention. No, the about-face is built on teamwork and trade secrets and trust. And it can be traced back to Randall, who competed for the USA from 2006-18.

“She just went in with, like, this just crazy belief that we could be good at this,” Brennan said. “And once she started doing it, she brought everyone along with her. It was like, ‘No, you can do this, too,’ and just kind of cascaded from there. Now that’s so important to all of us.”

Randall, the first American to win a World Cup race and a World Cup title, saw the other women on the U.S. squad as teammates, not adversaries. She encouraged them to push themselves and shared the techniques that worked for her. Her attitude was that if they were better, they would push her to be better and they would all rise together.

The results have spoken for themselves, and not just for the U.S. women’s cross country team. Athletes in other sports have taken notice and conducted their own experiments, mostly with positive outcomes. They include the U.S. women’s mountain bike team and the U.S. Ski & Snowboard women’s moguls team, which has evolved to be among the most dominant in the world.

After the last Olympics, Kikkan, 35, felt like the program was headed in the right direction. So she passed the baton to Diggins and Brennan, who won her first World Cup race in December 2020.

“I know she’s an amazing leader, so she’s just gonna lift everybody else up on the team with this kind of win, and I just can’t wait to see how the rest of the season goes,” Randall said after Brennan’s win. “So super psyched for her.”

So that’s what Brennan has tried to do. Last summer, she hosted McCabe and Utes Sydney Palmer-Leger and Sophia Laukli — all of whom are making their Olympic debut in Beijing — at her current home in Alaska for a training camp. But even in a friendly environment, to really bond takes work. For Brennan, 33, it’s a fine balance between being open but not overbearing.

“Of course, you can catch yourself being like, ‘Ooh, I don’t want to share that trick. They’re going to come get me.’ But you also have to come back to this idea that, like, I’m still me. I have my strengths and I might be able to share my strengths with them, but in all reality, those are still my strengths,” Brennan said. “It’s not like they suddenly become really good at it because I shared it with them. It still takes a lot of work to apply something to become stronger at it. And so, you know, I think I see it as like, ‘Well, maybe if I give them that nugget they’ll share something with me and maybe it’ll help me lessen one of my weaknesses.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) USA’s Novie McCabe (4) competes in the cross-country skiing women’s 4 x 5km relay at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou, China, on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022. At left is Switzerland’s Nadja Kaelin.

“And it’s that kind of sharing that progresses you further, because in the end our goal is to beat Norway and Sweden and Russia, not necessarily just each other. Like, it doesn’t really matter if I’m the fastest American if I’m in 20th place, you know? Who cares?”

Those days of being shut out of the top 10 aren’t over, but it certainly seems they’re becoming more rare. Fredrik Landstedt, the director of skiing for the Utes, said team approach is having a beneficial ripple effect that he’s noticed on the recruiting trail.

“U.S. skiing looks very, very positive for the next few years, for sure,” he said. “It looks great. And we notice, too, that there are other young women coming up that … are very strong skiers as well. And they get inspired by these women we have on our team.”

Building a cross country powerhouse can be a grueling affair, but the U.S. has made it a team event. And Brennan the U.S. athletes wouldn’t have it any other way.