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Yeah, the U.S. women’s XC ski relay finish was a disappointment. But don’t hold it against them.

American cross-country skier Jessie Diggins after finishing fifth in the 10 km freestyle race at the Olympics. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Like a bunch of my friends around Anchorage, I struggled to stay conscious until 12:30 a.m. Saturday, waiting for the American women to compete in the cross-country skiing relay race at the Olympics.

It's been 42 years since the U.S. won its last, and only, Olympic medal in cross-country skiing. A lot of us thought that could change early Saturday, and some even expected it.

Instead — spoiler alert — the Americans fell out of contention 10 minutes into the hour-long race. I fell asleep, waking up half an hour later as Norway and Sweden duked it out on the homestretch for gold. The U.S. women finished fifth.

Alaska ski racer Kikkan Randall (USA) competes during the women’s 10km freestyle. Andrew P. Scott-USA TODAY Sports

The result was a disappointment, not just for the American fans who watched but for the four athletes themselves. Sophie Caldwell, whose shaky first leg left the U.S. far behind the leaders, stood with tears in her eyes during an interview with her teammates afterward, Minnesota's Star Tribune newspaper reported.

The Olympics aren't over and the Americans' cross-country skiing hopes aren't completely extinguished: the women still have what might be their best shot at a medal in Wednesday's team sprint.

But if you watch that race on television, or read about afterwards, it's worth keeping in mind the increasingly blurry line between hopes and expectations.

Americans are conditioned to winning at the Olympics.

We won the most medals at the 2016 and 2012 summer games, and trailed only hosts Russia at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The relentless Olympic hype also creates a sense of inevitability. Days before the relay, the U.S. women sat down with Katie Couric — Katie Couric! — who, between highlights of podium finishes, promised to put glitter on her cheeks in solidarity with the team.

"Cross-country skier Jessie Diggins is 'sparkly.' She also is poised to break a long Olympic drought," read one headline in the Washington Post.

OK, we get it: the Americans actually have a chance at their first cross-country skiing medal in decades. But consider their competition in Saturday morning's relay.

Norway, the winners, had won 107 cross-country skiing medals before the start of this year's games. Sweden had 74. Russia, which got third Saturday, had 110, including the medals from the Soviet Union era.

They know how to do this — how to deliver when the pressure is on.

Diggins, in her three individual races, has placed fifth, fifth and sixth. The women who beat her, collectively, had already won 17 medals before the start of this year's games.

Jessica Diggins (USA) competes during the women’scross country 10km freestyle. Andrew P. Scott-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, the U.S. has racked up impressive results and podium finishes over the past few years, and its women's cross-country ski team is arguably the best it's ever been.

But it's a big step to go from occasionally cracking the top three on the international circuit to winning the races that everyone else — like the Norwegians, Russians and Swedes — has circled on their calendars for the past four years.

Women’s 4×5 cross-country relay: Gold medalists Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg, Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, Ragnhild Haga and Marit Bjoergen of Norway, Silver medalists Anna Haag, Charlotte Kalla, Ebba Andersson and Stina Nilsson of Sweden and Bronze medalists Olympic athletes from Russia, Natalia Nepryaeva, Yulia Belorukova, Anastasia Sedova and Anna Nechaevskaya celebrate during the victory ceremony. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Full disclosure: I used to report on cross-country skiing and I've known these women for a long time. They work hard. I like them.

But after nearly a decade of writing about the sport, I've come to appreciate how cross-country skiing ultimately doesn't bend to winning personalities or neat storylines.

In 2010, I was in Vancouver covering the Olympics there. I was 22 years old. My editor and I were both convinced that Kris Freeman, a longtime American racer, was going to medal in the men's individual race.

Freeman had overcome diabetes and trained as hard as anyone that we knew. He was deserving. How could he not come home from that race with a medal?

The answer was straightforward: Because 58 other men that day skied faster than he did.

Alaska skier Sadie Bjornsen (USA) competes during the women’s 10km freestyle race. Matt Kryger-USA TODAY Sports

We should be excited that the American women, including a big crop of Alaskans, have risen to the top echelon of their sport. And it's OK to hope for some medals — otherwise, what's the point of watching?

But until those medals start coming, it's probably still early to start expecting them.

In the meantime, you can do what the athletes do themselves: appreciate the effort, excitement and fun that comes with shooting for the podium.

"Chasing the dream, believing wholeheartedly, and giving all your best is something I'll cherish forever," one of the relay team members, Anchorage's Sadie Bjornsen, wrote after the race Saturday. "This team is so much larger than a result, a medal, or a number."

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage Daily News reporter. He covered cross-country skiing at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics. Before joining the ADN, he reported for

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