Cross-Country Skiing 101: Since PyeongChang

MUSTAIR, SWITZERLAND - JANUARY 01: Jessie Diggins of Usa competes during the Women's SP F Final at the FIS Tour De Ski Val de Mustair at on January 1, 2021 in Mustair, Switzerland. (Photo by Federico Modica/NordicFocus/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Jessie Diggins

Jessie Diggins in January 2021

VAL DI FIEMME, ITALY - JANUARY 10: Jessica Diggins of USA poses for a portrait with the Tour de Ski trophy after the Women's 10km Mst at the FIS Tour De Ski Val di Fiemme at on January 10, 2021 in Val di Fiemme, Italy. (Photo by Federico Modica/NordicFocus/Getty Images)

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Reigning Olympic cross-country skiing team sprint champion Jessie Diggins became the first-ever American Tour de Ski winner in early January, then clinched the overall FIS World Cup title in March, becoming the first American to do so since Bill Koch in 1982, and the first American woman ever to win the title. She remarked after title on some of her attributes that helped her win:

"It’s going to be a weird thing to be known for when I retire – the person who’s good at being in pain… It’s not my technique or my grace on skis,” she said with a laugh. “I really push with all I can on the things that I know are my strengths. Crossing the finish line knowing that I’ve pushed out every last bit of energy possible is something that I do focus on a lot.”

Diggins is quick to credit her teammates, as well as the technicians that prepare her skis and help her execute efficient exchanges in relay events “like a NASCAR pit crew.” Two of her teammates – Sadie Maubet Bjornsen and Sophie Caldwell Hamilton, both two-time Olympians – announced their retirements in early March, which will deplete the Americans’ depth in Beijing. Both competed alongside Diggins in the 4x5km relay in PyeongChang, finishing fifth, and Maubet Bjornsen did so in the same event at this year's world championships, with the U.S. finishing fourth, just 0.8 seconds off the podium in a race that lasted nearly an hour. The U.S. still has a talented team, but a 4x5km Olympic medal now appears more unlikely.

The pandemic did preclude some of Diggins’ top competitors from racing a full season, most notably with Norway missing the Tour de Ski, which Diggins won to take over first place in the overall standings. Diggins won a World Cup 10km freestyle race after Norway returned to the circuit, but she did not win a medal at the 2021 World Nordic Skiing Championships – nor did any American.

In Beijing, the 10km race will be in the classical style, which is less suited to her strengths. She will be an outside medal contender in that event and the 30km freestyle, while her best medal chances will likely come in the individual sprint freestyle and the skiathlon.

Later this year, Diggins commented on the specifics of what she plans to compete in at Beijing:

"Actually, I would like to do all of them. At the Olympics, you often have three days between events, so it is possible to race them all. And I’m someone who thrives on racing."

The 30-year-old competed in all six events in PyeongChang, finishing seventh or better in all six. She and since-retired Kikkan Randall won the first-ever Olympic cross-country skiing gold medal for the United States in the team sprint in 2018.

Retirements

Among several other noteworthy retirements, including the three aforementioned Americans and Simi Hamilton, here are few more that hung up the poles:

  • Five-time Olympic medalist Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland
  • Five-time Olympic medalist Aino Kaisa Saarinen of Finland
  • Sweden's Anna Haag and Emil Joensson, with six Olympic medals between each other
  • Five-time Olympic medalist Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway
  • Four-time Olympic medalist and 13-time world champion Petter Northug of Norway

NBC Olympics Research contributed to this report