The podium is packed with Stratton Mountain School on top in the mixed gender relay at the L.L.Bean U.S. Championships. (U.S. Ski Team - Bryan Fish)
FAIRBANKS, AK (March 31, 2017) - Jessie Diggins (Afton, MN) skated away with a strong third leg to boost Stratton Mountain School (SMS) to an upset win over APU Nordic in the mixed gender team event at the L.L.Bean U.S. Cross Country Championships at Birch Hill in Fairbanks Friday night. The win broke a three-year streak in the club relay by APU Nordic.
It was a hard-fought battle from start to finish between SMS, APU and Craftsbury Nordic in the glow of sunset at Birch Hill. The open classical leg pitted U.S. Ski Team teammates Kikkan Randall (Anchorage) of APU against Sophie Caldwell (Peru, VT) of SMS, with Randall building just over a four second lead. Craftsbury was third, 23 seconds back.
On the second classic leg, Craftsbury’s Ben Lustgarten (Burlington, VT) mixed up the order with a stunning segment, skiing past leader Erik Bjornsen (Winthrop, WA) of APU and moving his team into the lead by a second heading into the skate, with SMS in third, 10 seconds back.
The key matchup on the first skating led was Diggins versus her own World Championship medalist teammate Sadie Bjornsen (Winthrop, WA) of APU. In typical Diggins style, she flew away from the handoff charging quickly to chase down Bjornsen and Craftsbury’s Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury Common, VT). Diggins set a torrid pace to build just over a 13 second lead, handing off to Simi Hamilton (Aspen, CO) for the anchor leg.
Hamilton had to contend with a fast pace set by APU’s Scott Patterson (Anchorage), who knocked four seconds off the margin. APU’s number two team was third.
Both SMS and APU teams had been battling illness with less than half of the SMS team at full strength. Nonetheless, Diggins put the enthusiasm into the team in true World Cup relay fashion.
“We had a lot of fun putting on ‘braveheart’ face paint and goofing around,” laughed Diggins. “But we took that work-hard-but-have-fun mentality to the course today.”
Diggins caught up to Bjornsen and Patterson after about 1.5k in the 5k leg, then made her move at 2k.
“I was so proud of how my teammates skied, and it was so fun cheering them on!" said Diggins. "Pat and our wax team did an outstanding job like they’ve been doing all week. A huge thanks to SMS for all the support through these races!”
Jessie Diggins of Stratton Mountain School chases Sadie Bjornsen of APU Nordic on the third leg of the mixed gender team event at the L.L.Bean U.S. Cross Country Championships in Fairbanks, AK. (U.S. Ski Team - Bryan Fish)
For the elite athletes who spend the season on the World Cup tour, it’s always a joy to come back and ski with their home clubs.
“We’re really psyched as a team,” said Hamilton. “We have a great healthy and friendly rivalry with APU, and it was amazing to finally win the club relay after they have beat us in this race the last three years.”
Like Diggins, Hamilton was surprised at how SMS skied through the sickness. “It seemed like all the pieces to the puzzle fit pretty well today and we finally came out on top. I’ve been dealing with a stomach illness all week, so I was definitely a bit drained for my leg. But I was really happy to be able to dig super deep for the team and bring it home for us.”
Even though Diggins had handed him a solid lead, Hamilton worried about his anchor leg. “I was really nervous because Scott (Patterson) is really fit right now and he’s had a great season and Championships week. So I knew that he would be charging hard to catch me.”
Hamilton’s plan was to ski comfortably and efficient on the first lap. If Patterson bridged the gap, Hamilton was going to hold onto him for a final sprint.
“From there on out, I just focused on skiing as hard as I could without blowing up,” he said. “It was probably the toughest 5k course I’ve ever skied, and I’m happy that even with a drained battery, I could fight through the pain and lay down a respectable race.”
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Going into the final 5k, Patterson knew he had a challenge. “With the margin Jessie was able to give the Stratton team, it would have taken a miracle leg or an explosion to catch up,” he said. “I went for the miracle leg with everything I had, but 11 minutes of racing wasn't quite enough time for me. Simi and all of the Stratton team skied a great race and I was only able to close a few seconds.
“As a team I think we are a bit bummed, but it is great to see several strong teams and it was a fun race,” he added. “We'll be back with a vengeance another year!”
Evening fans were treated to an outstanding race that was more than head-to-head racing with success being based on an entire team performance. “There is something really special about being successful in a relay because it is a total team effort,” said Hamilton. “There’s no way we would have had the result that we did today without the unbelievable efforts from Sophie, Ben, and Jessie. We’re already looking forward to defending the title next year!”
Caldwell, who skied the leadoff classic leg, agreed. “Our team was struggling with sickness, but we were lucky to have four of us healthy enough for the relay,” she said. “We all wanted to ski the best we possibly could for our team. I felt better than I've felt in the other races this week and my goal was to come in as close to the lead as possible.”
Like her teammates, Caldwell opened with terrific skis. “My skis were fast and there were some technical turns on the downhills,” she said. “So I led some of the downhills the first lap and then hopped in behind Kikkan and hung on for dear life the second lap.”
Randall gapped her over the top of the last leg, but Caldwell was happy with her opening stint for Stratton, handing off to Saxton.
“I'm very proud to be a part of a club that's such a tightly knit team,” said Saxton. “It's been a goal of ours to recognize that teamwork and effort, so to do that in a team relay was incredibly gratifying.”
Caldwell shared that feeling. “I think we all skied the best we could have at this point in the season and it was really cool to see it all come together,” she added. “The club relay has never been our focus for the season. But, I'm not gonna lie, it feels good to win it and I’m really proud of our team!”
The U.S. Championships wraps up on Sunday with long distance freestyle racing - 50k for men and 30k for women, with final USSA Super Tour titles on the line.
Patterson holds a slim five point lead in the men’s overall ahead of Paddy Caldwell (Lyme Center, NH) of Stratton Mountain School. Lustgarten, just 13 points back, is also well in the hunt with 60 points up for grabs in the 50k. Patterson leads Caldwell by 22 points in the distance rankings.
For the women, Chelsea Holmes (Anchorage) of APU Nordic holds a 19 point lead over Kaitlynn Miller (Craftsbury Common, VT) of Craftsbury in the overall with Caitlin Patterson just three more points back in third. Holmes also holds a strong lead in the distance standings with Caitlin Patterson 35 points back.
The final events of the L.L.Bean U.S. Cross Country Championships follow on the heels of the initial events held at Utah’s Soldier Hollow trails in early January. Sunday’s finale will be live streamed on YouTube.
L.L.Bean U.S. Championships Schedule (times in AKDT, four hours behind EDT)