Jessie Diggins would likely be the first person to want this piece to lead with the news of her teammate Novie McCabe’s stellar Olympic debut in the women’s 10km classic on Thursday, Feb. 10, at the Zhangjiakou National Cross Country Skiing Centre. Out of a crowded field of 98 skiers, McCabe, who started fifth, skied to 24th place, finishing in 30:34.9, which was two minutes and 28.6 seconds off the pace of gold medalist Therese Johaug. Finns Kerttu Niskanen and Krista Parmakoski took silver and bronze, respectively.
Diggins finished in eighth place, in 29:15.1, also notable for what she afterward called “undoubtably her weakest event.” But Diggins, known for her generosity toward her teammates, coaches and support staff, brought up McCabe early on in her post-race comments, after noting that she didn’t feel any pressure before the race: “This is just my day to go out there and enjoy racing at the Olympics and, especially, see Novie do her first Olympic race. I got to put the glitter on her and give her a hug. It was honestly pretty emotional. But in a good way.”
McCabe, from Winthrop, Washington, is the daughter of two-time Olympic cross country racer Laura McCabe (1994 and 1998), and she made her World Cup debut only last November. On a course that teammate Rosie Brennan called “brutal” for its long, steady climbs and frequent wind gusts, McCabe kept her pace going by “just trying to zone out and get through it,” she said. “I knew that it would be tough, especially on the last time out. But it was nice also to have so many people around me out there and kind of have people to watch ahead of me. That helps a lot.”
As for the grit in the snow brought in by that ever-present wind, which was a factor at the last Olympics in PyeongChang, McCabe said she noticed it only a little bit. The wind did, however, blow in part of the track, which made McCabe change up her race plan a bit. “I actually wasn’t planning on skiing outside of the track at all,” she said. “But, I noticed kind of coming through the stadium that other girls were doing that. So, I hopped out for a bit.”
At the 5km mark, McCabe was in 38th place, so she made up quite a bit of time in the race’s second half.
And despite the decision looming about who will make up the women’s team for Saturday’s 4 x 5km relay, McCabe said it didn’t distract her: “I just tried to focus on the race that I know I’m doing, which was this one. And I haven’t really thought about much else. But for sure [the relay] is a goal of everyone’s.”
Diggins had a quick turnaround between the previous night’s medal ceremony for the individual sprint, where she took bronze, and this race. She spoke about soaking up the experience, then “coming back to even and really focusing on eating, drinking, resting, sleeping, just doing everything I need in order to recover. In that way, I feel like the Tour de Ski has been really helpful because, you know, whether it’s a great day or a poor day or anywhere in between, it doesn’t matter. You just have to focus on the next thing and preparing as best you can.”
She called herself “really, really happy” with her result, which was 1 minutes and 8.8 seconds behind Johaug, and said after the race that she had considered dropping the event but decided to stick with it as an opportunity to focus on technique and help dial in her kick for the upcoming classic team sprint. “Every single stride I was just thinking so hard about my technique,” Diggins said. “It really kept me right in the moment.”
Brennan, meanwhile, was not too far behind Diggins, finishing 13th in 29:28.6, a result she admitted was a little disappointing. “I was actually really happy with my skiing,” said Brennan “Given how I felt out there, I thought it would have been a little better. We’ll have to sit down and think about it and figure out what could have gone better.”
She acknowledged that the turnaround from Tuesday’s sprint races to this endurance event was difficult, adding “it’s really hard with these late-night races to get good sleep afterward. It takes a while to shut your body down.” Even so, she never considered not racing, saying that she loves interval start races for the ability they give her to ski at her own pace and has also been working hard on her classic technique.
Rounding out the U.S. skiers, Hailey Swirbul, another first-time Olympian, raced to a 32nd-place finish, in 31:05.3. Following her 40th-place result in last Saturday’s skiathlon Swirbul had said, “I had a little bit of a reset and had a few days to recover from that first effort and really focus on kind of resetting my goals.” In the 10km, she aimed to “push as hard as I could through that whole race and not give up no matter what, and I was able to do that today.”
This time around, the wind was not as big a factor for her, after having faced what Swirbul called a “wind wall” on her own during the skiathlon. She also dressed more effectively, wearing shorts and a T-shirt under her race suit instead of the base layer and windproof layer she wore previously, which had made her way too warm.
Like McCabe, Swirbul said the upcoming relay team decision didn’t distract her. “I actually wasn’t thinking about that today at all, which I was glad about,” she said. “I was thinking about the amazing video that I received from my hometown today, of all the kind messages, and I was thinking about moving through the pain rather than trying to avoid it. So other things besides that relay were on my mind today, which was really nice.”
The women’s relay team was announced Friday afternoon, the day after the 10km; Swirbul, Brennan, McCabe and Diggins will all be racing.