In the ultimate display of true grit, Jessie Diggins (Afton, Minn.) bridged a 10-second gap to overtake Krista Parmakoski of Finland on the flanks of Alpe Cermis to become the first American to finish on the podium in the Tour de Ski, taking third. Sadie Bjornsen (Winthrop, Wash.) capped a stellar nine days on the Tour finishing ninth - the first time two Americans have cracked the top 10.
"What a day!" Diggins said. "I’m so happy with this Tour de Ski, and so proud of our team for all the hard work our techs and coaches have put into each and every race, and so proud of my teammates for racing so hard. That’s one grueling race series!"
Heidi Weng of Norway, on the heels of a strong classic race a day earlier, overtook her teammate Ingvild Flugstad Østberg on the steep upper section of Alpe Cermis to claim her second straight Tour de Ski title by 48.5 seconds. Diggins was two minutes, 23 seconds back and put 34 seconds on Parmakoski.
It was a day of many storylines for the American women, who just eight years ago weren't even competing in the Tour de Ski. It was a best-ever individual finish with Diggins' podium, besting the mark of fifth set by both Diggins in 2017 and Liz Stephen (E. Montpelier, Vt.) in 2015. Bjornsen's career-best Tour in ninth put two Americans into the top 10, matching Norway and Finland. Stephen put in the fifth fastest time to climb all the way up to 16th. It was also a career-best finish for Rosie Brennan (Park City, Utah) in 24th.
In Saturday's classic mass start, Diggins had dropped one spot in the Tour rankings and was starting 10 seconds back from Parmakoski. On the opening flats, Diggins kept an even pace maintaining the gap distance and keeping the Finn in her sights. As they neared the start of the climb, Diggins began to close the gap quickly coming even with Parmakoski as they began the ascent of Alpe Cermis.
Ahead of them, Weng was doing the same with her teammate Østberg, skiing side by side up the alpine ski area slopes. As they reached the steepest portion, Weng attacked and starting building a gap as Østberg dropped back. As Diggins approached a similar spot, she, too attacked and starting building seconds on Parmakoski. As she wound her way around the switchbacks she continued to build. And when she hit the straighter sections near the top she built more and more margin to solidify her podium position.
"I caught Krista maybe a third of the way on the flats and we traded leads, working together to go faster," Diggins said. "My strategy was just to keep the tempo high, keep my body upright and leaning into the climb, and just keep moving. But on the flat sections where we were weaving around gates, I noticed I was starting to pull away just a little bit, so I would push extra hard each turn and just keep my tempo up, and that’s how I gradually pulled away."
Bjornsen had planned to chase down Anastasia Sedova just ahead of her and then climb together with Sedova and Nathalie von Siebenthal of Switzerland. But the two took off quickly on the wall and Bjornsen skied to the finish on her own, defending her top-10 ranking.
"Wow, it feels incredible to finish that tour," said Bjornsen, who is having a strong and consistent season, scoring her first ever top 10 in a major stage race. "It feels so good to accomplish the goal I set for myself before the season started! The Tour is such a tough event because you are racing day after day, and you have those amazing, and disappointing races throughout the event. But you just have to stay positive and keep fighting for every second."
Tour skiing is challenging - not just from the arduous physical exertion, but the mental toll. "This tour feels like I had more swings than normal, but my highs were higher than normal so I am happy! I hope to come back one day and fight for the podium like Jessie did this year. She is a true inspiration and makes me believe it can be possible. The feeling of achievement as I cross the line in that final hill climb is like no other feeling in the world. It feels like I have conquered the world."
Brennan is also having a strong season and wrapped up the Tour with the 16th fastest stage time.
“This was a tough tour for me and certainly not what I had hoped for, but I managed to bookend it well,” said Brennan, who did record her best Tour ever. “I am really happy with my opening sprint and with my climb today, the rest was a challenge.”
As arduous as it is up Alpe Cermis, Brennan looked forward to the hill climb finale. “It is a very nerve-racking race because you just never know what is going to happen out there,” she said. “But I love climbing and I love the feeling of reaching the top.”
Her strong climb came a day after a blood sugar crash left her a bit unsure of herself going into the final stage. “I felt so much better and am really happy with the way I skied today,” she said. “Now, it is time to rest and absorb all the intensity we have had during the Tour.”
“The Tour de Ski has been a great way for me to race into shape for the season,” said Stephen. “I feel that it has worked that way again this year, as my body seems to be feeling better and better each race. This year’s result in the climb was not what I was gunning for but for where I am at this season, I have to be satisfied with today’s result.”
There was a great sense of pride permeating the entire U.S. Ski Team as athletes gathered at the team's wax truck after the race.
"I’m proud of our team, and honestly every person that finished this event," said Bjornsen. "It’s a tough one, but one of the more rewarding feelings I believe you can find."
As one of the Team’s longtime Tour leaders, Stephen takes pride in where the Team has come. “I am extremely proud of Jessie, as she had her work cut out for her today to get an overall podium and that is something that I know she has wanted to achieve,” she said. “So it was amazing to watch her stand up there today.
“Sadie skied an incredibly strong Tour too, and I really could not be more proud of the team we had standing on the top of the mountain today. When I retire one of these years in the near future, I will miss these Tour de Ski moments, with our tight little team and the small Tour de Ski World Cup field. It is in these intimate moments with people I care about that are what makes sport so important in my life.”
The Tour de Ski marked the final distance events in the Olympic selection period. Diggins, Bjornsen and Sophie Caldwell (Peru, Vt.) had already qualified via a top eight World Cup finish in an Olympic discipline. Qualifying for the Olympic Team via a top 50 distance World Cup ranking are Kikkan Randall (Anchorage), Brennan and Stephen. It will be the fifth Olympics for Randall, third for Stephen and first for Brennan.
The World Cup tour now heads to Dresden, Germany for a freestyle sprint and team sprint next weekend. Diggins and Bjornsen will sit it out to rest.
Men's 9k Freestyle Pursuit
Women's 9k Freestyle Pursuit
Men's Tour de Ski Final Standings
Women's Tour de Ski Final Standings
Winner of the Day (fastest times)