PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — It was not the Olympic debut of Rosie Brennan’s dreams, but the Park City native hopes it will give her a solid foundation for future accomplishments.
“That was a tough race,” Brennan said after finishing the 15-kilometer Skiathlon race in 58th place — almost seven minutes behind the winner, Charlotte Kalla of Sweden — Saturday afternoon. “It wasn’t what I was hoping for. But it’s the first one, so I think I just have to be here and enjoy it and hope my shape will come around a little more in the coming weeks.”
The Skiathlon combines two types of cross-country skiing in one race. Competitors ski 7.5 kilometers in the classic style, and then they switch to skate skis for the final 7.5 kilometers of the race. The women completed four laps on a physically grueling and technically challenging course.
All of the U.S. skiers struggled with some aspect of racing, but that didn’t stop Brennan’s teammate Jessica Diggins from earning the best finish for an American cross-country skier at an Olympic Games. The Minnesota native skied the entire race in the lead pack and crossed the finish line in fifth place, just 4.6 seconds off the podium.
“Today was a good race for me,” said Diggins, who finished in 40:59.6 — just 14.7 seconds behind Kalla, who crossed the line in 40:44.9. “It was not my best race, which I’m really happy about because I’m ready to do some more. I am really excited. I think I’m in a good place in these games.”
Kalla took the lead just before the final lap and then earned gold by 7.8 seconds over six-time Olympic champion Marit Bjoergen of Norway, who led most of the race. Bjoergen's 40:52.7 was good enough for silver, while Finland’s Krista Parmakoski earned bronze, finishing in 40:55.
“It was really cool being seconds away from a medal,” Diggins said. “And seeing it right there, I know it’s possible. I know I have what it takes.”
All of the U.S. skiers struggled with physical issues for different reasons. Brennan is recovering from an illness, while Diggins said she had been struggling to eat enough while in South Korea.
“I felt good at the start,” said Brennan, who had a strong start. “I’ve been struggling with some illness in the last month, and it’s kind of left me with not the energy that I need. So I am hoping to rest up and come around for the end.”
Diggins said her arm cramped throughout the race.
“I was swinging my arm on the downhill trying to get my triceps to stop twitching, which was kind of funny out there," Diggins said laughing. "So I have a few things I’m going to dial in this week, trying to figure out fueling and hydration for these late afternoon races.”
Diggins said she also made a strategic error in the second half of the race.
“This is a thinking course, it’s a tactical course,” she said, “But it’s also just a serious grinder of a course. In the skate half too, there are a few crucial pinch points where you need to not be stuck behind people, and I unfortunately was not in a smart position when Charlotte made her move, and when I got my body to start pushing, it just was a little bit late. …I could not feel my legs.”
Even with the fueling issues, Diggins' performance was impressive.
“For her to be in contact after the classic leg is just a massive step and she was really able to ski pretty easily with those women,” said head coach Chris Grover. “Obviously a tough battle in the skate by all those women, but for her to finish just under five seconds from the podium and finish fifth, which is our best ever women’s finish at the Olympics, we’re really excited for her.”
Five-time Olympian Kikkan Randall said that as she began to struggle, she kept her eye on Diggins.
"I was happy to see her up front, and her day is coming for sure," Randall said.
Brennan said she’s come to expect the kind of grit Diggins showed Saturday at the Alpensia Cross Country Ski Center. There are five other races for cross country athletes, and Brennan is expected to compete again, especially at longer distances.
“I’m not surprised,” Brennan said. “I think there’s a lot more to come from everybody on the team. But it’s good to kick it off with something good.”