ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Norwegian great Therese Johaug won her third gold medal of the Beijing Olympics on Sunday and Jessie Diggins took silver for the best result by an American in an individual cross-country skiing event since 1976.
Fighting fierce winds and brutal temperatures, Johaug went out front early in the 30-kilometer mass start race and held on to win in 1 hour, 24 minutes, 54 seconds. Johaug also won the skiathlon — the first gold medal of the Olympics — and the 10-kilometer classic race.
Diggins, also skiing alone for much of the race, kept a steady pace behind the Norwegian as gusts whipped across the tracks and battered the skiers, many with tape on their faces to protect from the cold. She dropped to the ground after crossing the finish line, 1:43.3 behind Johaug.
Kerttu Niskanen of Finland led a chase group to the line for bronze, 2:33.3 behind.
Diggins made cross-country skiing history for the United States at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics when she and Alaskan Kikkan Randall won the team sprint — the country’s first gold medal in the sport. Diggins set another U.S. Olympic record at the Beijing Games by being the first woman to win an individual medal when she took bronze in the sprint.
The silver matched the best result ever by an American in an individual cross-country skiing event. Bill Koch won silver in the men’s 30-kilometer race at the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics.
U.S. skier Rosie Brennan, a 33-year-old Utah native who lives in Anchorage, was the next American to cross the finish line. She finished 2 minutes and 38.7 seconds behind Johaug, good enough for sixth place. (She had placed fourth in the sprint — one spot behind Diggins — earlier in the Olympics.)
Also representing Team USA in the top 20 were Sophia Laukli (15th) and Novie McCabe (18th).
“That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my whole life,” Diggins said after the race. She said she had food poisoning the day before. “I thought, I’m just going to see what happens...my goal was just to cross the finish line with nothing left.”
“I never got cold. But my legs were cramping...I was doing some funny technique out there.” After collapsing at the finish line: “I’m okay now. I had some really nice people taking very good care of me.”
Temperatures hovered around minus 14 degrees C (6.8 degrees F) on Sunday but the wind chill made it much colder. The women skied four laps on a 7.5-kilometer (4.6-mile) course.
Johaug pushed the pace on the first lap, creating a long string of single skiers snaking around the corners and downhills.
At the first check point at 2.9 kilometers, Johaug, Diggins, Ebba Andersson of Sweden and Delphine Claudel of France created a gap. Brennan, Krista Parmakoski and Niskanen were about seven seconds behind, but the gap grew to 28 seconds by the end of the first lap.
Natalia Nepryaeva, the World Cup leader, fell behind and dropped out of the race before the end of the first lap. At the 8.8-kilometer mark, Claudel dropped off the pace.
Johaug pulled away from the leaders at about 10 kilometers, with Diggins and then Andersson chasing. The Norwegian maintained her trademark fast tempo on the climbs, but Diggins stayed close, trailing by about 23 seconds.
At the halfway point, Johaug led Diggins by 27 seconds with Andersson 1:15 behind.
With one lap to go and Johaug and Diggins out front, the chase group caught Andersson and Niskanen pulled ahead in a sprint.
Daily News reporter Nathaniel Herz contributed.