More than glitter: How US women pin Nordic medal hopes on teamwork

American women used to be the also-rans in cross-country skiing, a sport dominated by Scandinavians. But by valuing each other’s unique contributions, they have become one of the top teams in the world.

Yves Herman/Reuters
Jessica Diggins (l.) and Kikkan Randall (r.) of the US celebrate their victory in the women's cross country team sprint free technique final at the Nordic Ski World Championships in the northern mountain resort of Tesero in Val di Fiemme, Italy, on Feb. 24, 2013.

Not so long ago, the idea of Americans winning an Olympic medal in Nordic skiing was about as heretical as the thought of a Norwegian team winning the Super Bowl.

After all, it had only been done once, by Bill Koch in 1976. And it had never been done by an American woman. But a few girls from Alaska to Vermont were convinced it was possible – even when they were finishing dead last on the World Cup.

Never mind that their coaches had never raced at that level, let alone won any medals. Or that by the time the word “ski” was invented in English, Scandinavians had a 5,800-year head start on perfecting the art of gliding across snow. Or that Norwegian skiers were national celebrities with a team budget 14 times bigger than that of the Americans, who still do their own dishes at training camps and are virtually unknown at home.

Undaunted, these girls painted their cheeks with glitter; pulled on red, blue, and white striped knee-socks; and shattered the European glass ceiling of cross-country skiing – capturing gold, silver, and bronze medals at World Championships, and winning more than 80 medals at World Cups. Now they’re gunning for an Olympic medal, and their best shot is in the next two events: the 4x5 km relay on Saturday, and the team sprint next Wednesday.

“It would be pretty special to be able to do it in the relay,” says Kikkan Randall, America’s most decorated female cross-country skier.

It would also be fitting. For the key to these ladies’ unprecedented results is a team culture that has been more than a decade in the making. They value each other as much for being good listeners as racing fast, and celebrate individual success as a collective success – because each woman is recognized for her role creating a team environment that empowers every one to fulfill her potential. The US men’s team has also played a key role as supportive peers and “brothers” – with little trace of the jock culture that often dominates in sports.

Even for those baffled by the world of spandex, ski wax, and skiers who prefer going uphill, such team-building transcends those mysteries. It is as applicable to managing an office as building a world-class ski team.

“I would be lying to say that we aren’t some of the most competitive girls in the world, but we learned that it’s not helpful to build yourself up by pushing/putting others down,” says Holly Brooks, a member of the 2012 US women’s team that won America’s first World Cup relay medal. She has since left the team and started her own business in Anchorage, Alaska. “Instead, one of the best tactics is to band together, build each other up, and collaborate. I think that tactic can be extrapolated into any avenue in life.”

Matthias Schrader/AP
Jessica Diggins, of the United States, third from right, competes during the women's cross-country skiing sprint classic at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Feb. 13, 2018.

Raising the bar

Randall has been very close – devastatingly close – to winning an Olympic medal before. In the 2014 Games, she was a heavy favorite in the sprint competition.

That in itself was an accomplishment. It would be hard to overstate just how outclassed Americans were when Randall’s career began.

In her first individual World Cup, she had finished last – nearly five minutes behind the winner. At the 2006 Olympics, her relay team came in 14th out of 17 nations.

But Randall persisted and won a World Cup medal the following season – the first for US women in modern racing.

Working with coach Erik Flora at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, she created a nucleus of hard-working women who were chosen more for their motivation than their results. Among them was Sadie Bjornsen, who had nearly quit skiing after missing the 2010 Olympics, but under Flora’s tutelage has since medaled at World Championships.

Flora’s formula was simple, based on a year he spent training with one of Norway’s premier ski clubs: Get a core group of committed athletes together, and train hard. Really hard.

At the time, Norwegians were logging around 900 hours a year, but Americans were averaging 500 to 600 hours.  

He gradually raised that bar – and Randall demonstrated the results.

By the time she arrived in Sochi, she had won gold with teammate Jessie Diggins at the 2013 World Championships and was weeks away from clinching her third sprint World Cup title – a season-long contest and the most prestigious award in ski racing, because it requires consistency over a five-month period.

So when Randall missed qualifying for the Olympic sprint semi-finals by .05 seconds, the entire stadium fell silent. She and the team also had a disappointing 9th-place showing in the relay, an event in which they had won two World Cup medals.

But that night as team member Bjornsen was walking back from dinner she ran into Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, a Finnish skier who had joined the Americans for a training camp in Alaska two years prior. In an isolated cabin on the edge of a glacier, Saarinen had participated in their team-building activities – from making meals and doing dishes together to creating dance routines.

So when, on the eve of the Olympic relay, Saarinen felt that her team’s spirits needed lifting up, she took a page out of the Americans’ book and brought her team together to sing karaoke and play rally car games late into the night. The next day, they staged an incredible come-from-behind performance to take Olympic silver.

“The only reason we won a medal today is because of the lessons I learned from you in Alaska two summers ago,” Saarinen told Bjornsen, according to a new book, “World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross Country Ski Team,” by Peggy Shinn.

The Swedes have also noticed.

“The American girls have always looked happy, positive, full of life – different from many other skiers and athletes in other disciplines,” says Ole Morten Iversen, a Norwegian who started coaching the Swedish women two years ago and found the team dynamic needed improving. “We want to be as good as the American girls regarding the team spirit.”

The most obvious manifestation of that team spirit is Diggins’ tradition of painting her teammates’ cheeks with glitter and flags – a tradition that has spread to other teams, including the Swedes.

“The glitter, for me, is this promise to honor the little girl that just wants to go super-speed – it’s this reminder that I do this because I love it,” says Diggins, the self-appointed team cheerleader who in 2016 became the first American woman to win a World Cup distance race. Now the strongest skier on the team, she has come within seconds of medaling at these Games in each of the first three races. “For me it feels like … a privilege to help change the culture of skiing to Yes We Can.”

Lehtikuva/Markku Ulander/Reuters
Jessica Diggins of USA and Kikkan Randall of USA celebrate after finishing second and third respectively at the FIS Nordic Ski World Championships in Finland in Feb. 2017.

Just as tough as racing

But what looks great from far away is not always as smooth as it seems.

In the fall of 2016, head women’s coach Matt Whitcomb had to confront a sobering realization. After prioritizing team-building above all else, he and the girls had unconsciously “popped it into neutral,” and it was showing – in jealousy, lack of communication, and a general flatness.

So he called a meeting.

“For a team that is basically known first as being a team, before we’re known for being fast, this is the worst we’ve done in a long time,” he told them, acknowledging his part in letting things slip. “Is there anybody in the room who would disagree with that?”

That prompted a cathartic confession session that left everyone – including Whitcomb – in tears.

“We are eight really, really competitive girls living together for five months in a hotel room. … That’s not always pretty or perfect,” says Bjornsen. “You work just as hard at being a teammate as you do at racing. …and Matt plays a huge role in that.” 

After that meeting, Whitcomb reinstated an old rule to promote camaraderie: no cellphones at lunch and dinner. He has also helped the girls look ahead to potential challenges. And coming into these Olympics, with six girls who have skied on a medal-winning relay team, one of the biggest challenges they’ve discussed is how to deal with not being named to that potentially historic relay on Saturday.

“You don’t get to actually go home with a medal if you’re not one of the four,” says Liz Stephen, who has skied in every medal-winning relay and is a pillar of the team.

“But it’s been a goal the whole time, through all these relay medals – whoever is not on the team, this is a team medal. And I can be sure that I have had a role – and whoever is on that team – we’ve had a role in creating the team that it is today.”

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