‘It feels historic’: U.S. Cross Country Ski Team enters Tour de Ski in unprecedented territory

As they took the course Saturday for the first leg of the Tour de Ski in Toblach, Italy, the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team was in rarefied territory.

The U.S. women’s team entered with Jessie Diggins leading the World Cup points race and teammate and Alaskan Rosie Brennan close by in third. While Diggins won the overall in 2021, the U.S. has used a depth of talent to find success that may be unparalleled for the Americans in four decades of World Cup racing.

“It feels historic for sure,” said former U.S. Ski Team member and Olympian Holly Brooks, who has followed the early season action from her home in Anchorage. “To have the depth and to have two of the top three skiers being in contention is really extraordinary.”

The men’s team hasn’t produced eye-popping results, but they too have been on the rise. Packed with a young nucleus of skiers including multiple Alaskans, the U.S. men have also achieved some momentous finishes.

In email exchanges with ADN, members of the U.S. Ski Team described what led to their unprecedented early season success and what their expectations are for the remainder of the season.

Brennan and Diggins both believe the success of Team USA’s skiers is a continuation of a slow ascent and not a quick, unexpected leap.

“We’ve had a lot of people just putting in the work consistently, year after year,” Diggins said. “That really starts to build over time. So many members of this team, we’ve got this awesome depth. All of that work is coming up to the surface.”


Since arriving in Alaska in 2011, Brennan said, she’s maintained a very consistent training routine, currently working with Erik Flora and the APU Elite Team. She said illness kept her from reaching her potential last year in the season’s first period, and the success of the team now is giving her season even more visibility.

“I wish I could say there was one magic thing I did that changed everything, but that’s not the reality of ski racing or many pursuits,” she said. “It’s been many years of small improvements and lots of work that add up to good things. ... The overall success of the team seems to have simply drawn more attention so people are actually noticing.”

Brooks said in conversations she’s had with former U.S. Ski Team members like Alaskans Kikkan Randall and Sadie Bjornsen Maubet, and chatting with local skiers on the Hillside and at Kincaid Park in Anchorage, the enthusiasm level is high.

“People are just so engaged,” she said. “It’s fun to have a horse in the race. I mean, it really wasn’t that long ago where top 30s were celebrated. And now I feel like, every weekend in period one, we had someone, if not multiple people, on the podium.”

While Brennan, 35, and Diggins, 32, have been stalwarts, there’s also an influx of young skiers. At 22, Novie McCabe already has a stellar resume. McCabe, from Winthrop, Washington, won three national titles at the University of Utah and was a 2022 Winter Olympian. She joined the APU team this year and has high aspirations after finishing seventh last season in the Tour’s final stage.

“I think that the key for me this year will be treating each day as a new opportunity and not dwelling on the day before too much,” she said.

Julia Kern, Sophia Laukli and 18-year-old Sammy Smith round out the women’s roster for the Tour. Smith is coming off an impressive performance at the Winterstart Super Tour in Anchorage.

Brennan said the team has an excellent blend of youth and experience.

[Top US college and high school skiers compete in Alaska’s Winterstart Super Tour stop]

“We have a really young team now, which often means a lull in results as some athletes move on and the young ones get their feet under them,” Brennan said. “This crew has now had a few World Cup seasons together and things are clicking, so we are seeing great results all around.”

Perhaps the most surprising result of the U.S. Ski Team’s World Cup season to date came from J.C. Schoonmaker. A former UAA skier and current APU athlete, Schoonmaker finished on the podium in a sprint race in early December in Östersund, Sweden. He was followed closely by teammate Ben Ogden, marking career bests for both as well as the first time the U.S. had two men racing in a sprint final.

Ogden, 23, has been a stalwart of the team in recent years. Alaskans Schoonmaker, Gus Schumacher and Zanden McMullen give the Americans three more skiers on the Tour de Ski team who are 23 or younger. Another 23-year-old Alaskan, Luke Jager, raced for the Americans in the World Cup season’s first period but isn’t competing in the Tour.

“They’re all around the same age,” Brooks said. “They’re really some of each other’s best friends, so I think it feels like less of a sacrifice to put so much time and energy into it. They are competitive with each other but in a really healthy way. And so I think they push each other and, you know, that success breeds success. I think a lot about kind of the contagion effect of confidence.”

Ogden had a breakthrough moment of his own Saturday, finishing third in the Tour skate sprint race for his first career podium. That finish combined with Schoonmaker’s run in Östersund marked the first time in 40 years that two American men earned World Cup podium finishes in one season, according to U.S. Ski and Snowboard. The last time that occurred was in 1983, with Tim Caldwell and Bill Koch finishing on the podium in Anchorage. Ogden’s podium finish was the 10th overall for Team USA in the 2023-24 season.

Brooks, who spent five seasons on the World Cup tour a little over a decade ago, said racing predominantly in Europe takes some getting used to for young skiers.

“Skiers are packing their bags in November and they’re not coming home for the most part until March, so you’re living out of a suitcase for five months a year,” she said.

With experience and success, the younger Americans are starting to find their comfort level.


“I think for some of the younger people on our team, we’ve just gotten more adapted and adjusted to this World Cup lifestyle, so we show up to the races knowing we belong there,” Schoonmaker said.

That sense of belonging and success has translated into confidence. For Ogden, gaining confidence to compete at the World Cup level has been a process. Last year he earned the U23 green bib, putting him among the best in the world at his age.

“The biggest thing that comes from successful early season races is confidence,” Ogden said. “Confidence in our ability to ski with the top dogs here on the World Cup and confidence that we can compete multiple times back-to-back. After a few good races in period one, I am personally feeling excited for the coming races.”

An APU athlete, Schumacher has been consistent this season, a regular top-25 finisher in distance races. On Saturday, he finished 18th in the skate sprint, the highest such finish of his career.

“It’s been really fun on this team this year,” Schumacher said. “Especially on the men’s side, it feels like we all ride the wave together, so that’s been a fun boat to be aboard.”

Despite making his first start on the Tour races, McMullen is eyeing some top-20 finishes after a strong first period.

“It’s easy to find that confidence when I’ve been training with such a strong team all year,” he said. “Being able to believe in my training and race as hard as I can has proven to be a great formula.”

The men’s team for the Tour de Ski also includes Kevin Bolger and another APU athlete, Scott Patterson.


World Cup races in the United States are rare, with only one in the past 34 years. A race scheduled for Minneapolis in 2020 was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the World Cup is returning to race in Minnesota this season. The races at Wirth Park in Minneapolis in mid-February should only help to continue the American ascent in cross-country skiing.

The races will be especially poignant for Diggins, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota.

“I’m so excited,” Diggins said. “It’s been so cool to see how excited everybody is about it. It’s so cool that we’re rallying around this as a country and seeing this excitement grow. I’m hearing from clubs that are road-tripping out there and people that are making plans and making this part of their winter vacation. That’s so cool and exciting.”

The U.S. team continues to race in Toblach on Sunday, in the 10K classic for the second stage of the Tour.

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.