By Philip O’Connor
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) – Kikkan Randall and Jessica Diggins delivered the first Olympic cross-country medal for the United States since 1976 with a stunning victory in a thrilling finish to the women’s team sprint relay on Wednesday.
Diggins held off the challenge of Sweden’s Stina Nilsson in a furious sprint for the line to win gold and Norway’s Marit Bjoergen became the most successful winter Olympian of all time with 14 medals after taking bronze with Maiken Caspersen Falla.
“It feels unreal, I can’t believe it just happened,” Diggins told reporters.
“In the final stretch I was just thinking, ‘Go, go, go, I’m giving it everything I had and I’ve got someone who I really love and care about waiting for me at the finishing line and I just want to make her proud’,” she said of Randall.
The Americans had not celebrated a medal in cross-country since Bill Koch took silver in the 30km race in Innsbruck more than 40 years ago.
“I had so much adrenaline as she was coming down, but if there’s anybody I’d have 100 percent faith in coming down that finishing stretch as fast as possible, it’s Jessie,” said the 35-year-old Randall who is competing in her fifth Olympics.
“So that was just a wonderful feeling to take it all in and watch it happen.”
Sweden and Norway were hot favorites for yet another gold medal in women’s cross-country skiing and the Nordic nations were at the head of the pack for almost the entire race.
With the racers taking turns to speed around the 1,176-meter long track, Randall and Diggins fought to stay in touch with the leaders as the rest of the pack fell away after the halfway point.
Randall kept the Americans in the hunt on her final leg, handing over to Diggins for the sixth and final lap which was raced at a furious pace as the lead changed hands several times.
Well set up by team mate Charlotte Kalla, Sweden’s Nilsson and Norway’s Falla clashed as they approached the stadium for the final time, and skis touched again as Diggins sought a lane from which to make her push for glory.
She passed Falla and set her sights on leader Nilsson, who won gold in the individual sprint, as they rounded the final bend to set up an electrifying finish.
Diggins surged past and thrust her ski across the line 0.19 seconds ahead of Nilsson.
“I am very proud of our performance, I was really digging deep today to get the power over the last 100 meters, but today USA was too strong and I really think they deserve the gold medal,” Nilsson said.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor, Additional reporting by Rory Carroll, editing by Ed Osmond)