A brother and sister who came north to Alaska to ski for UAA and stayed to train with Alaska Pacific University helped America make history Sunday on a classic day of skiing at the World Nordic Ski Championships.
Sadie Bjornsen teamed up with Minnesota's Jessie Diggins to capture the bronze medal in the women's classic team sprint, and Erik Bjornsen combined with Colorado's Simi Hamilton to grab fifth place in the men's race in Lahti, Finland.
The medal marks the first time the United States has collected a World Championship medal in a classic-technique since classic and freestyle skiing became separate disciplines, according to the U.S. Ski Team.
"It is a huge experience to win a medal," Sadie Bjornsen, one of the country's top classic skiers, said in a post-race press conference.
In the men's race, Bjornsen and Hamilton posted the best World Championship team sprint finish in history by a U.S. men's team regardless of technique.
And that's just the start of the historic moments enjoyed by the Americans in front of a crowd of 30,000:
— It was the first Worlds podium finish for Sadie Bjornsen, a key member of a U.S. women's team that has risen to international prominence in recent years.
— It was the third medal-winning performance in Lahti for the Americans, who never before have won three medals at a single World Championships. On Thursday, Diggins placed second and Anchorage's Kikkan Randall was third in the women's freestyle sprint.
— It was the fourth career World Championship medal for Diggins, putting her ahead of Randall, a three-time medalist.
"We knew that we had an outside chance in team sprint," U.S. Ski Team coach Chris Grover said in a release from the ski team. "We've worked the last few years really hard working on classic skiing. Part of our strategy has been to improve classic. We knew if we put together the right combination of skiers, with the right wax, that there would be an outside chance at a medal. This was not our number one or two event, but probably number three."
Sadie and Erik Bjornsen are from Winthrop, Washington, where they grew up skiing in the Methow Valley. Sadie was one of the nation's top junior-level skiers in high school, and when it was time to pick a college, she choose UAA. When it was Erik's turn to choose a college, he followed his sister.
Both have since become members of APU's successful nordic ski program.
Grover said Sadie, 27, skipped Saturday's 15-kilometer skiathlon in preparation for the team sprint. She skied the leadoff leg and immediately put the American duo in contention with her power and poise.
In the team sprint, two skiers take turns skiing a short loop for a total of six legs. Diggins, who has won numerous World Cup medals in freestyle races but is still developing as a classic skier, displayed strong double-poling during her three trips around the 1.3-kilometer course.
"Going into the final, I was really, really excited," Diggins said. "I have so much faith in Sadie and believe in her classic. … I've never been considered a classic skier and so I was like, I gotta to change that and learn how to ski like Sadie and stride and glide with some power and force."
Bjornsen and Diggins both said they were motivated by the team camaraderie the American women have developed in the last decade. In the final 100 meters of the race, as she fought for third place, Diggins said she was inspired by that team spirit.
"That team belief brings out the best in my performance every time," Diggins said. "So I just double-poled like my life depended on it … all I was thinking was that Sadie has to hold me up because I'm going to die. Sadie caught me and that was such a cool moment. It didn't sink in for a bit that we had done it.
"Then it just slowly dawned on me — we got a medal in a classic team sprint and that is so cool. We've been working towards it for a long time, targeting this race for a long time and thinking about it and planning and visualizing it. I'm just so proud of this team."
Bjornsen and Diggins combined for a time of 20 minutes, 38.94 seconds. Norway won the gold medal in 20:20.56, with Russia claiming second place.
In the men's race, Russia took the victory over Italy and Finland after a crash in the final 100 meters took Norway out of medal contention. The Americans were in fifth, about 25 seconds off the winning pace.
Erik Bjornsen, 25, was ecstatic after the race.
"I haven't done a lot recently so I was psyched," he said in a release from the U.S. Ski Team. "Once we got to the finals and we lined up against all the best countries in the world, you could tell it was going to be a hard one. We're psyched to be fifth."