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Diggins Third in First Ever Women's 50k

By Leann Bentley
March, 12 2023
jessie on the podium
Jessie Diggins celebrates her third place on the podium at the Holmenkollen 50k. (Nordic Focus)

"It was a beautiful day to make history," said Hailey Swirbul.

It was a historic day on the World Cup with the women racing the first ever 50k and 2023 World Champion Jessie Diggins crossed the finish line in third place. 

The Holmenkollen 50k is one of the longest running cross country ski races in the world and is known to be one of the most grueling courses on the circuit - and historically, only the men raced this course. This year, it was the women's turn. 

Diggins, Rosie Brennan, Hailey Swirbul and Alayna Sonnesyn were the four athletes to represent the U.S. on the historic start line and through the 31 miles, with over 6,000+ feet of vertical gain, contributed to one of the most exciting races we have seen all season. 

From the start, it was a test. With six total laps around the course in the metropolis of Oslo, with tens of thousands of fans camped out on the side of the trail, 32 women representing countries all around the world did what has never been done before - race the Holmenkollen 50k.

“Today was a victory for women's skiing and a victory for skiing in general," said Chad Salmela and former U.S. Cross Country Ski Team and Olympic champion Kikkan Randall said during the live broadcast. 

Through the time markers, Diggins and Brennan were in the lead pack, showcasing their strengths and pushing a fast pace. Diggins continued to pick skiers off and stayed consistent in the top three, supported by her efforts on the downhills and strong tempo on the flats and climbs. Unlike many of her competitors and supported by Randall's commentary, Diggins tuck on the downhill is lower than anyone else in the field, making her more aerodynamic and ultimately faster. With the course playing to her strengths, with a 1.5k downhill into the finish, Diggins had the tools to  finish on top.

At the halfway point in the race, there were no ski exchanges meaning that all athletes were still skiing on their original racers. But, that quickly changed on the next lap through the stadium, when the majority of the field skied into the exchange zone for a fresh pair of skis. Diggins and Brennan both exchanged quickly and gained some time on their competitors, putting nearly five seconds from the next racer.

"I was excited and honored to be part of this historical moment where women were able to do a 50k, and not just a 50k but a 50k on the hardest course we race," said Brennan. "It certainly was challenging but we did it and that was really cool."

With American fans lining the course with the signature 'USA' face paint drawn on their faces, the vibes were high and the cheering could be heard for miles. The Holmenkollen has been called one of the most electric places to race on the World Cup circuit and the athletes can agree, saying that racing this course is an unforgettable and once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

With the atmosphere surely inspiring the skiers on course, Brennan, Swirbul, Sonnesyn and Diggins gave it everything they had. 

With a couple of kilometers left, the highlights of the day center around several points, including Diggins winning nearly every sprint bonus on course and earning more points and time toward the FIS crystal globe, to Brennan skiing a gutsy and hard race while helping set a fast pace for over 30 miles, to the younger Sonnesyn and Swirbul skiing on the biggest stage on the World Cup. 

"You have to be so methodical and confident over the long run to find success as this level," said Randall. "And today's race was about as good as it gets in ski racing."

In the end, Diggins took the advantage by tucking and drafting into the finish lane, to which she then sprinted into the finish and toed the line only .5 seconds from second and third. The day was ultimately won by Ragnhild Haga of Norway. In second was Astrid Oeyre Slind of Norway and third was our very own Diggins. 

"I was out for bonus points and skied a smart and controlled race," said Diggins. "I did the very best job I could in preparing for this race, but I did start cramping at 25k, which is pretty early on! But, I knew that I would feel this, it was not unexpected and instead I focused on what I could control. I was thrilled to find myself in the sprint-out fighting for the win, especially to battle back after all of the muscle spasms. It was such a cool thrill and stoked for the women that were on the podium with me!" 

Coming off a packed World Championships, where she competed in every race, Brennan was 13th overall. Swirbul, crossing the finish line with a huge smile across her face was 25th and Sonnesyn, who expressed how incredible it was to be on this historic start-line, was 30th. 

"I am really stoked to have checked that goal off the list," said Swirbul as she reflected on racing the 50k. "My coach calls these long distance races the 'races of royalty' and I think that really sums up what the feels like to me. I feel like a race like the 50k really embodies the spirit of nordic skiing as a whole and what it's really all about." 

"It definitely was a tough day out there but so happy for Jessie and the team!" said Sonnesyn. "I had a really good first three laps and unfortunately not everything was dialed but really proud of the effort I gave out there considering everything. So cool to be a part of the historical day - and there were so many American fans out there cheering which was really cool to hear my name being yelled, so that was really cool."

Now that the 50k is in the bank, there are two weeks left of the World Cup season. Diggins is a top contender for the overall World Cup crystal globe and the distance overall, only a few points behind Norway's Tiril Udnes Weng. Brennan is in fourth in the overall points standings, in both distance and overall. 

To cap off the day, Diggins reflects on the importance of this race. "I think it absolutely is the right message we want to send to young girls all over the world that you work just as hard as the guys, you train just as hard, you should get to race the same exact races. Today, we got a chance to show that we absolutely can do this and it was awesome." 

The team will rest before the Drammen city sprints this Tuesday, March 14. 

Women's 50k Skate Results
Overall World Cup Results