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Women’s Olympic Relay Goes Down Saturday

The U.S. women’s relay, with Sophie Caldwell, Sadie Bjornsen and Liz Stephen, hugs anchor Jessie Diggins at the finish after she secured second for the best-ever U.S. women’s relay result in a cross-country World Cup in January 2016 in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic.

It’s relay time.

Or, as longtime American anchor leg and effervescent team cheerleader Jessie Diggins put it, “Grab your relay socks. Get your glitter. ✨ Favorite day of the whole darn year coming up tomorrow! 🙊

The women’s 4 x 5-kilometer relay goes off on Saturday. Start time is 6:30 p.m. local time, 12:30 a.m. Alaska time, 4:30 a.m. East Coast time. The symbolism is at once both obvious and profound: The strongest American team in, well, ever, working together in the ultimate team event. Longtime team leader Kikkan Randall, in perhaps her last-ever Olympic race of a brilliant five-Olympics career, skiing alongside athletes who grew up idolizing her. Lots going on here.

So who’s going to be wearing bib number 4 for the Americans? Sophie Caldwell, Sadie Bjornsen, Kikkan Randall, and Jessie Diggins, in that order. That’s classic – classic – skate – skate, all on the same “blue” course. And then, presumably, medal or not, a large hug at the finish line.

The coaches had some idea about potential relay lineups coming into the Games but used the first three races to finesse those picks, U.S. Head Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb told FasterSkier in a phone interview on Friday.

“The way the Olympic schedule worked out is that it gave us a chance to look at eight of our athletes in the first three days,” Whitcomb said. “So we had the knowledge coming into the Olympics as well as the knowledge of how athletes are actually skiing at the Olympics. And so there were a few items left for discussion, it took us about three hours to come up with this team. But at the end of the discussions it circled back to what we initially were leaning towards following the 10 k skate.”

(In Thursday’s freestyle interval-start race, Diggins led the way for the Americans in fifth. Bjornsen and Randall were seconds apart in 15th and 16th. Stephen was roughly 45 seconds farther back in 31st, telling FasterSkier afterwards, “I definitely didn’t have the best race I was hoping for, but I mean, our team has so much good to focus on, and that’s what I plan on doing.”)

So let’s take it leg by leg.

Here’s Whitcomb on putting Caldwell as the first leg: “We have run Sophie in three relays in the past. … And she has been on the podium, she has been a member of our best-ever relay result which was a second place where we beat Finland on laps three and four, legs three and four. … And we feel that Sophie has really taken a step forward this year, has posted a few results in or around the top 30 which she has never done with consistency before, and her sprinting has taken a huge step forward, too, where she is ranked number three in the world going into the Olympics. So that’s a really exciting first leg for us. It’s also reasonably tricky conditions for kicking, which is something Sophie excels in.”

Caldwell is “really stoked” at this opportunity, Whitcomb noted. He quoted a text she had sent him calling this a “dream come true” when he asked her if she was interested in skiing that leg. (“Before we drop the team on the athletes we make sure that we talk with each of the sort of nominated legs,” Whitcomb clarified, “to make sure that they’re feeling good, and feeling like they are the right choice for that particular leg.”)

Sophie Caldwell then hands off to Sadie Bjornsen, a skier with whom she has long been linked. (You can just call them both “Sodie.”)

“Sadie has been our go-to classic skier,” Whitcomb explained. “She is someone who can ski any leg of this relay, and we feel like you put your best distance classic skier in Leg 2, as we see on the start list Sweden is doing that in Kalla, and Norway has a very strong Leg 2 in Jacobsen, and Finland has a very strong leg in Kerttu Niskanen. And that’s to say nothing of the Russians who have been skiing great in classic all week.”

So did Whitcomb have to say much to Bjornsen to help prepare her for this opportunity? Not really.

“Sometimes the best kind of coaching in these situations is just to assess whether or not there are any problems, and if there aren’t then just kind of step back and let the professionals do their job,” Whitcomb said. “Sadie is someone who performs extremely well under pressure in a race, but she can also get a little stressed out if you talk about an upcoming race too much. So she’s got this, and has shown us time and time again through eight or ten World Cup relays that she is prepared for Leg 2.”

Bjornsen will hand off to Randall, the woman she came to Alaska Pacific University to train with earlier this decade. Randall has more often skied the classic leg for the American women than the skate leg, though that has been more out of necessity than design.

“Historically as a team we have always felt like the leg that we have been missing is one of the classic legs,” Whitcomb notes. “And Kikkan has often been prepared for both skate or classic, but it’s been the classic that we’ve needed to switch somebody in to. And she’ll admit it herself, she is a little bit of a wildcard when it comes to the 5 k classic and is much more dependable as a skate leg. But we just over the years have had ample skaters to fill that position. So she has been tossed into some really challenging situations, even at times when she is not feeling on point in her classic skiing, and has done a great job for us. So I think she is really excited to try this third leg, and we are excited to see her in it.”

Randall skied to a strong 16th on Thursday, while Liz Stephen, another longtime relay stalwart, was 31st. U.S. coaches looked both to Randall’s strong performance and the fact that “we didn’t feel like Liz skied to her potential,” Whitcomb said.

“She had been feeling great four days earlier in a piece of intensity that she did and just unfortunately wasn’t able to put together that race,” Whitcomb said of Stephen. “And it’s heartbreaking for Liz because historically she has been our third legger. But she said it straight up to me right after the race, she said, ‘I’m not ready for this relay tomorrow, kills me to say it but I’m not.’ And so Kikkan put together a solid skate race and also said she felt really good early on, was able to start a little harder than she intended, and oftentimes she is more of the cut where she has a hard time getting going, so it was really promising to hear that she was able to start hard yesterday.”

The final handoff will be from Randall to Diggins, hearkening back to a certain team sprint event at World Championships four years ago this month. (Technically, Randall was the anchor leg in that race.)

Diggins is a superb skier in any context, but has long been able to summon remarkable performances in relays specifically.

“For years, I would pull out these awesome performances on relay day and I was like, ‘Oh my God, where did that come from?’ ” Diggins told FasterSkier in a 2016 phone interview. Her individual performances have perhaps since caught up to her relay efforts. But the relay magic remains strong.

“We are relieved that we can throw Jessie right into the spot where she is most comfortable in and thrives in,” Whitcomb observes.

Speaking to Diggins’s overall Olympics, Whitcomb says, “She has had an unbelievable Olympics so far, she has been extremely close to the medals in two races. And we get a few texts here and there saying, ‘Oh you guys must be disappointed,’ and it’s quite the opposite. We are just amazed, we are elated she is skiing great. She had a recovery day today, and she is still a young woman and is recovering very quickly. So she is excited.”

So that’s a really stoked Caldwell, a rock-solid Bjornsen, a seasoned Randall, and an excited Diggins. Watch out, world.

Who will the Americans be up against? Norway (bib 1) will have Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, Astrid Jacobsen, Ragnhild Haga, and Marit Bjørgen. For Sweden (bib 2), it’s Anna Haag, Charlotte Kalla, Ebba Andersson, and Stina Nilsson. For Finland (bib 3), it will be Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, Kerttu Niskanen, Riitta-Liisa Roponen, and Krista Pärmäkoski. And Olympic Athletes from Russia (bib 5) will start Natalia Nepryaeva, Yulia Belorukova, Anastasia Sedova, and Anna Nechaevskaya.

Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Italy, Canada, Czech Republic, Slovenia, France, and Belarus round out the field. One odds site lists Norway as the heavy favorite going in, with Sweden a strong pick for second, and the U.S. slightly ahead of Finland for third. But that’s why you run the race.

Start list

— Gavin Kentch (Jason Albert and Harald Zimmer contributed reporting)

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