PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The U.S. racer Jessie Diggins finished fifth Saturday in the women’s skiathlon. That marked the best individual finish for an American in an Olympic cross-country ski race since 1976, when Bill Koch took silver — still the only medal the United States has won in the discipline.
It is a measure of the expectations the American team has for these PyeongChang Games that, afterward, Diggins — golden glitter on her cheeks — was pleased but hardly elated.
Moral victories are no longer good enough.
The Americans are here for medals. Diggins’ performance Saturday hints at what should — should — be to come.
Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla won the race, in 40:44.9, the first gold medal of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. Norway’s Marit Bjoergen, the two-time defending gold medalist, took second, 7.8 seconds back. Finland’s Krista Parmakoski got third, 10.1 seconds behind.
Sweden’s Ebba Andersson was 10.9 seconds back for fourth, Diggins 14.7.
Skiathlon works like this:
It’s a two-part race, 7.5 kilometers of what’s called classic skiing followed immediately by another 7.5 km of what’s known as freestyle, or skate, skiing. Fifteen kilometers translates to just over nine miles.
Classic means the racers ski in parallel tracks on a groomed course. In skate skiing, a racer pushes alternate skis away from another at an angle — like, well, skates.
In between the two portions of the race, there’s a pit stop, just like a stock-car race. There the racers change skis and poles. The clock does not stop, even during this changeover. First one across the line is the winner.
Kalla won the race in much the same way a distance runner bangs out an emphatic victory in the 10k on the track in the Summer Games. At the start of the final lap, she dropped the hammer, opening up a lead that was at first five seconds, then eight or nine. No one could keep pace.
Other Americans in Saturday’s race: Caitlin Patterson finished 34th, in 44:14.9; Kikkan Randall, 40th, 44:47.2; Rosie Brennan, 58th, 47:36 flat. Sadie Bjornsen did not start, the U.S. coaches clearly saving her for the relays, expected to be an American strength.
At the only skiathlon this World Cup season, Diggins also placed fifth. It’s not her best event — she traditionally has been stronger in the freestyle technique, and in the sprints, which are yet to come.
She said after Saturday’s race that she was glad to have gotten this first race behind her — nerves, or something, had prompted an upset stomach before the race, and she said she was “not in a smart position when Charlotte made her move.”
For all that, she said, “I’m really proud of my race.”