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Eight-tenths of a second keeps US skiers off the podium in World Championship relay race

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: March 4
  • Published March 4

From left, Jessie Diggins, Hailey Swirbul, Rosie Brennan and Sadie Maubet Bjornsen placed fourth place -- less than one second away from a medal -- Thursday in the women's 4x5-kilometer relay at the World Championships in Germany. (Photo courtesy U.S. Ski & Snowboard)

The American women found themselves in a familiar place Thursday at the World Championships -- fourth in the relay race, one spot away from the medal they have pursued persistently for nearly a decade.

The team of Anchorage skiers Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, Rosie Brennan and Hailey Swirbul and Minnesota skier Jessie Diggins became the fourth team in nine years to post a fourth-place finish in the 4x-5-kilometer race at the World Championships.

No team has come closer. Less than one second separated the Americans from third place and a spot on the podium.

“This is a team of gritty girls and a team that likes to lay it all out there,” Brennan said by email. “We skied that way today and tried our best to play our cards right. It is certainly bittersweet to be so close to that podium and not get there, but when everyone skis with that much grit, there isn’t much else you can do.”

It was shorts-and-T-shirts weather again in Oberstdorf, Germany, where temperatures have been in the 50s most of the week. The U.S. team came dressed for the weather, and for the occasion. As has become the custom for relay races, they wore paint on their faces and red, white and blue knee socks on their feet.

The U.S. women wore their relay socks Thursday. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

For the last decade, a changing cast of team members has brought high spirits and high hopes into high-stakes relay races at either the World Championships or the Olympics. The Americans have won several World Cup relay medals -- Bjornsen alone has two silvers and two bronzes -- but they are still waiting to break through at the World Championships or the Olympics.

At four of the last five World Championships, they’ve placed fourth (they were fifth at the 2019 championships). Until this year, the closest they’d come to a podium finish was 2017, when they were 31 seconds off the bronze-medal time.

On Thursday, they finished eight-tenths of a second behind third-place Finland.

“That was an absolute championship performance from every member of this team,” Diggins told U.S. Ski and Snowboard. “It’s heartbreaking to come that close and know that we’re there, but also that is part of the sport.”

It was the final relay race for Bjornsen, 31, who announced her retirement later in the day.

Bjornsen made her World Cup debut in 2011 and has skied on five World Championship relay teams and two Olympic relay teams (the U.S. was fifth at the 2018 Olympics and seventh at the 2014 Olympics). Getting another shot to earn a relay medal is what brought her back this season, she said.

“It was fun to be part of that one last time,” she said.

The race started with two classic legs and ended with two freestyle legs. Swirbul skied the first leg and was in eighth place when she tagged off to Bjornsen.

Bjornsen turned in the third-fastest time of the second leg to put the team in fourth place. Brennan was next, and she was in fifth place, less than four seconds out of third place, when she tagged off to Diggins. Diggins skied the second-fastest anchor leg of the day and was edged by Finland at the finish line.

“It was surprisingly hard to get away from people with a significant draft in effect,” Brennan said. “My best card was to grind away from the others so that’s what I did and I am disappointed I couldn’t have been more effective.

“This is the closest we have been to the goal of a podium and for that I am proud. I know if we keep showing up and trying, we will find our way there.”

The gold medal went to Norway, which beat second-place Russia by 26.6 seconds with a time of 53 minutes, 43.2 seconds. FInland was another 20 seconds back in 54:29.4, followed by the United States in 54:30.2. Germany was 30 seconds behind the Americans to finish fifth among 15 teams.

For Swirbul, 22 and a World Championships rookie, fourth place felt pretty sweet.

“I’m so proud to be part of it and it’s a weird feeling because we are expected to feel sad about finishing fourth, but I feel really proud of this team and how everybody did,” she told U.S. Ski and Snowboard.