Everyone recognizes traditional cross-country skiing when they see it. In the Olympics, the races are much faster, of course, and skiers use different techniques depending on the event.Classic skiing requires the skis to remain parallel. Skiers can use both poles at the same time, or alternate poles. Classic courses are designed with machine-groomed tracks.Using the skating technique, skiers push alternating skis away from one another at an angle; the motion resembles skating on ice. Skis are waxed from front to back, making them faster than classic skis.Norway has the most Winter Olympic medals in history. The top male and female skiers in Olympic history are Bjorn Daehlie (12 medals) and Marit Bjoergen (10), both from Norway.The Norwegians, however, fell short of expectations four years ago in Sochi and blamed Knut Nystad, their chief wax technician. They will try to rectify the 2014 disappointments in South Korea.But other countries are catching up. Finland and Sweden are second and third, respectively, on the all-time medals list. Combine Russia and the Soviet Union and they jump to the top of the list. Italy and Germany field strong teams as well.At the 2017 world championships, Diggins won silver in the individual sprint and bronze in team sprint with Sadie Bjornsen. At worlds in 2015, Diggins won silver in the 10 km freestyle. Diggins and Randall won gold in the team sprint at the 2013 world championships, the first Americans to do so. Diggins has a chance in several events, including the freestyle.Bjornsen — who is currently in seventh in the World Cup rankings — was a teammate of Diggins’s on the relay team in Sochi four years ago. Her best individual finish in World Cup competition was a bronze in the 5 km at Toblach, Italy, in 2017. She’s a medal contender in the sprint.Sophie Caldwell is third in the World Cup sprint rankings. She tied for the gold medal in the 1.3K freestyle sprint in late January in Seefeld, Austria.The U.S. team keeps it all in the family: The Bjornsens are siblings, as are the Hannemans and Pattersons. The Caldwells are cousins.It’s been 42 years since the United States won a medal in cross-country skiing.Andy Newell believes that drought is about to end.The four-time Olympian sprint specialist said he is so confident in how far the Americans have come in cross-country that it would “disappointing” if they don’t come home with any hardware from the Pyeongchang Games.We’re at a point where we can say that now,” Newell said. “For me personally, I would love for that medal to come around my neck, but if it is around any (American’s) neck, we will be equally stoked.For an American to even suggest that it would be disappointing to not win an Olympic medal in a sport largely dominated by Europeans is a fairly bold claim. The Americans have been little more than participants since Bill Koch won a silver in 1976 at Innsbruck.But it’s also a testament to how far they have come.Jessie Diggins, Sophie Caldwell and Sadie Bjornsen are considered strong contenders on the women’s side, while Simi Hamilton and Newell could be the best medal hopes for the men.Diggins won the final World Cup race before the Olympics and ranks third in the standings.She’s been on the rise for a while, capturing two medals at the 2017 World Championships. Diggins and Bjornsen, who ranks seventh in the World Cup standings, teamed up to win bronze in the team sprint classic at last year’s worlds.It has been an incredible transformation of our team,” Diggins said. “We used to be lucky just to field the team and now we have so many women that can be a podium threat on any given day. As we push each other it makes everyone stronger.Said Bjornsen: “I think suddenly any single person on our team believes that on any single day they can stand on the podium. … When you put a lot of people who are super determined, you can accomplish anything.
Diggins said there is an unusual, fun-loving, supportive culture on this team, whether it is playing spoons or going for runs together.We’ve have never had more fun on the road,” she said. “When we are all having fun that is when we are dangerous on the race course.Sophie Caldwell has earned a podium spot twice this year in freestyle sprint.I would be over the moon if we can win a medal,” she said.Hamilton, in his third Olympics, has had several top-10 finishes on the World Cup circuit and, like many American cross-country skiers, is looking to break through at the Pyeongchang Games.We have always been an underdog team when it comes to cross-country skiing and we still have the underdog mentality even though we are one of the best teams in the world,” Newell said.For someone who hasn’t been able to eat as much as she wants, and who lost some of what she’s been eating right before a viciously grueling race, and who dealt with a triceps cramp somewhere in that 15 kilometers of skiing, then lost feeling in her legs at another point, Jessie Diggins had one heck of a Saturday.It was not what she wanted. She wanted to become the first U.S. woman to earn a medal in an Olympic cross-country skiing event. She did earn the best finish ever for a U.S. woman in an Olympic cross-country skiing event, fifth in the unforgiving 15-kilometer skiathlon at Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Centre. And if Diggins gets things together as hoped with her stronger events ahead, that drought is in jeopardy.I have a few things I’m going to dial in this week in terms of trying to figure out fueling and hydration for these late afternoon races,” said Diggins, the relentlessly exuberant 26-year-old from Afton, Minn., whose training home is Stratton Mountain in Vt. “And I think when I get that dialed in and make sure that my body’s ready to push when I demand it to be pushed, then I think I’m going to really start putting together the results I’m hoping for.Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla won gold with a time of 40:44.9, 7.8 seconds ahead of Norway’s Marit Bjoergen, who still became the most decorated female Winter Olympian ever. Finland’s Krista Parmakoski took bronze in the event, which involves classical skiing technique for the first 7.5 kilometers, then a switch into different skis and freestyle skiing for the second half.Bjoergen won the 11th Olympic medal of her career — six gold, four silver and a bronze.Caitlin Patterson, one of five University of Vermont products on the U.S. cross-country team – including younger brother Scott – finished 34th in her Olympic debut. Teammates Kikkan Randall and Rosie Brennan finished 40th and 58th, respectively.It was really cool to be out here with these big crowds and to represent my country, it was great,” Patterson said. “I can’t say as far as a cross-country ski race goes, I can’t say it was quite what I was dreaming of. Just felt a little bit off, was struggling, especially with the classic. But it was still very fun to be out here, fighting with everything I have.Diggins (40:59.6) was just 2.1 seconds off the pace with three quarters of the race finished, but she couldn’t close the way she hoped and ended up 14.7 seconds behind Kalla.When I got my body to start pushing, it just was a little late,” said Diggins, who is third in the World Cup standings. “I was a little, like, I could not feel my legs. So I’m going to dial in a few more things and make sure that the next time, I’m ready to go. But I’m really proud of my race. I honestly can say that I could not have pushed harder. I got everything that my body would let me out of it today. … I’ve been struggling to eat enough these Games, and the stress level has been pretty high. Like, I threw up a little bit before the start, I was so nervous. So I’m going to work on a few things in terms of like managing stress.Diggins saw her family – including her parents and grandmother – waving a flag right before the race and drew inspiration from that. Despite all her struggles on the course, she edged Sophie Caldwell for best Olympic finish by a U.S. woman in the sport. Caldwell was sixth in the women’s sprint final in 2014 in Sochi after getting tangled with another skier and suffering a fall.It’s getting closer. The first U.S. woman to medal in the sport. The second American to medal in the sport — Bill Koch is the only one, in 1976 at the Innsbruck Games. Diggins is closing in on it.
Being seconds away from a medal and seeing it right there, I know it’s possible,” she said. “I know I have what it takes.”There are few Olympic disciplines with such sheer variety as cross-country. With a mixture of sprints, relays and marathon-style events contested over a gruelling programme, the athletic demands are second to none.The sport also requires the ability to perform two different techniques: a “classic” style – allowing only for straight propelling, with uphill slopes mounted in a herringbone walk – and the faster skate-skiing method, which involves moving the legs diagonally.There are a lot of different things to think about,” said Alex Harvey, the Canadian sensation who showed his class last season by winning 50km gold at the 2017 World Ski Championships in Lahti, Finland.It’s not quite like trying to get Usain Bolt to run middle-distance, though. Our sprints are over 1500m, so cross-country athletes tend to be physically similar to middle-distance runners. Our sprinting requires endurance. But it’s a very broad spectrum of races. I’m going to race all six. I feel like I’m hitting the peak of my career and that I’ve got a legitimate chance of winning a medal in the four individual races.” The cross-country programme at PyeongChang 2018 consists of the ladies’ skiathlon (10 February), men’s skiathlon (11 February), men’s and ladies’ individual sprint classic (both 13 February), ladies’ 10km freestyle (15 February), men’s 15km freestyle (16 February), ladies’ 4 x 5km relay (17 February), men’s 4 x 10km relay (18 February), men’s and ladies’ team sprint freestyle (21 February), men’s 50km mass start classic (24 February) and ladies’ 30km mass start classic (25 February).The skiathlon is a race in two parts: the first half is raced classic style, before racers change skis and use the “free” technique – i.e. a skate style.Skiathlon is actually my favourite race because I enjoy doing both styles,” Harvey said. “It’s the first race at PyeongChang, so that’s exciting.With classic technique, you’re essentially walking on skis. It’s linear, and you glide with each stride. You have to get your wax right in the middle of the ski to get maximum propulsion.With skating, you’re basically ice skating on snow – but you’re using your upper body as well. You don’t need kick wax, because the ski is on its edges, so it glides further and faster. I’ve been getting my best results in skating style recently, but I like both, so I’m really targeting the skiathlon.” While technique is obviously critical if you’re going to win medals, all athletes at the top level have great ability. The crucial differentiators between winning and losing, according to Harvey, are athleticism and the right skis.It comes down to who is strongest on the day, mainly,” he said. “There’s no substitute for training, and working hard. I’ve done years of persevering through rough patches to get here. I’ve trained with the same coach since I was 16, usually twice a day. And you need to do a lot of competition, too. It’s the only way to improve.Your skis are also absolutely vital. You can blow a race because of bad equipment. You can be at your strongest but finish 30th if the skis aren’t right. And it works the other way, too. Recently I finished second in a world championship race. I was very tired, but the skis were so good, they got me on the podium. You really do need a good horse to win!” You’ve got to start with Marit Bjoergen, from Norway,” Harvey said. “She’s the most successful skier ever in our sport, with well over 100 world cup wins. An absolute legend. She can break the record for the most gold medals in our sport in Korea – and she’s a great person, too.The whole Norwegian team is so strong, too, especially Heidi Weng, who has been top of the leaderboard this season. The USA team could also do very well. Jessica Diggins and Sophie Caldwell have been getting some results.There are some great individual Swiss and German racers, too, but the big battle will be between the Swedes and the Norwegians.” My previous two Olympic experiences have been quite different,” Harvey said. “At Vancouver 2010, our team came in with low expectations and went way beyond them. We got fourth in the team sprint and some really good individual finishes, too.We carried our confidence over into Sochi 2014, and came in with such high expectations. But we weren’t able to deliver. We got a reality check.Since then, we’ve changed a lot of things, especially on the technical side. We have two new European wax technicians, a new stone grinding machine to prepare the skis, and I even changed ski companies.I feel better set up on the morning of a race now. We have learned a lot and I think we come into PyeongChang with good experience. My season has been really steady and included a few podiums.His rivals will come from the usual places: “The Norwegians, the Swedes,” he said. “Dario Cologna, of Switzerland, is doing very well, and Maurice Manificat, of France, is also in form.Only one thing is certain: if Harvey strikes gold, his trademark celebration will be on show. “I will be playing air guitar with my skis if I win!Simen Hegstad Krüger recovered from an early fall to lead a Norwegian podium sweep in the men’s 15 kilometres + 15km skiathlon event here at the Winter Olympic Games.The 24-year-old crossed the line in a time of 1 hour 16min 20sec at the Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Centre.Compatriots Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Hans Christer Holund claimed the silver and bronze medals respectively.Sundby, the Sochi 2014 bronze medallist, finished eight seconds behind with Holund was a further 1.9 seconds back.Krüger’s victory, his second in major individual competition following his 15km freestyle International Ski Federation World Cup triumph in Italian resort Toblach in December 2017, came despite him falling to the ground just seconds after the mass start began.The fall caused the Olympic Athlete from Russia’s Denis Spitsov and Andrey Larkov to topple over him.It is an indescribable feeling,” Krüger said.It is an amazing day, but it started in the worst way with the fall after the first 100 metres and a broken pole.”Krüger added: “I was completely last in the group so I had to start the race again and switch focus to catch up with the guys.When I did it I was saying to myself, ‘okay, take one lap, two laps, three laps and just get into it again, and try to do it on the final lap’.I knew that my chance was to go early and try to surprise the group.Spitsov recovered from falling over Krüger to come fourth.Defending champion Dario Cologna of Switzerland ended up in sixth place behind France’s Maurice Manificat.I’m a little disappointed and of course I was out to go for a medal but I was not strong enough in the end,” Cologna, Switzerland’s flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony on Friday (February 9), said.I felt a little bit tired and the Norwegian has been too strong.Cross-country skiing action is due to resume on Tuesday (February 13), when the men’s and women’s sprint classic events take centre stage.Well, maybe Saturday’s photo finish at a World Cup competition involving the United States’ Sophie Caldwell and Switzerland’s Laurien Van Der Graaff will convince those naysayers otherwise.Competing in the FIS women’s freestyle sprint final in Seefeld, Austria, Caldwell and Van Der Graaff lunged their skis toward the finish line at the end of the 1.1-kilometer race, but it was too close to determine a winner after the pair finished within one-hundredth of a second of the each other. Both were awarded first place, while Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla finished 0.21 seconds behind in third place.At first I was second in the finish and then 10 minutes later I learn that I have won the race in a tie with Laurien. I like this style of course and after my qualifier today I knew I could ski well. To get my second career win just before the Olympics gives me a lot of confidence heading into the Games.It’s so great to win again,” Van Der Graaf said. “I have told myself to believe that it was possible and now I have two wins this season. I didn’t realize Sophie was so close at the finish. It’s kind of fun to share the podium with her. I have never heard of that happening before.Caldwell’s victory gives the United States its first cross-country skiing World Cup victory of the season, per NBC Sports. It also gives Team USA a boost as it heads into the Winter Olympics next month in PyeongChang, where the U.S. hopes to win its first cross-country skiing medal since 1976.The Games will feature men’s and women’s competitions across six cross-country skiing events: the individual sprint, team sprint, individual start, mass start, relay and skiathlon. The distances range from 1.2-kilometers (women’s sprint) up to 50-kilometers (men’s mass start) and feature two types of techniques: classic and freestyle. Classic style requires the skier to stride forward while moving ones arms and legs in opposition, and freestyle has the heels and toes secured to the skis and allows the athlete to stride from side-to-side like a speed skater.The first cross-country skiing event to kick off the Games will be the Women’s 7.5 km + 7.5 km skiathlon on Saturday, February 10.