Minneapolis comes out in droves to cheer skiers on

World Cup weekend for Swedish women, Norwegian men, and Americans

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii / Star Tribune
Minnesota native Jessie Diggins celebrated her third-place finish at the women’s 10-km. race on Feb. 18 at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis. For Diggins, skiing in the World Cup on her home turf was nothing less than a dream come true.

Michael Kleiner
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American
& Partners at NTB

Minneapolis finally got its cross-country skiing World Cup. The Jessie Diggins Invitational—oops, the Loppet Cup Stifel World Cup at Theodore Wirth Regional Park in Golden Valley, drew 15,000 fans to each day’s events Feb. 17–18. The 30,000 tickets sold out within 24 hours of going on sale.

The crowd cheered for all competitors—how Scandinavian of them—most energetically for the U.S. skiers, which was a welcome new experience for the squad.

They saved their best for the hometown woman, Diggins, who worked so hard to bring the World Cup experience to her home state, after winning a gold medal in the 2018 Olympics. Originally scheduled for 2020, it was canceled by COVID. Four more years had to pass.

The weekend belonged to the Americans, Norwegian men, and Swedish women.

Jonna Sundling led the Swedish women juggernaut, winning the sprint and 10km Individual Start Freestyle. They were her first gold medals of the season.

Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo won the sprint and was fourth in the 10km Individual Start Freestyle. Håvard Solås Taugbøl was third in the sprint. Harald Østberg Amundsen and Pål Golberg were 2-3 in the 10km.

The United States’ Gus Schumacher earned the first podium of his career, winning the 10km.

Minneapolis completed a North American tour following a World Cup in Canmore, Canada, Feb. 9-13.

Klæbo wins tough sprint

Norway’s speed specialist Klæbo showed strength of pace and was the best in Feb. 17’s freestyle sprint. Fellow Norwegian Håvard Solås Taugbøl came in third place.

Klæbo seemed unapproachable throughout the competition and did not deny himself in the final either. Klæbo clocked 2:54.24 in the final, 0.27 ahead of Italian Federico Pellegrino, 1.21 ahead of Taugbøl. The skier from Trønderlag thus followed up two sprint victories in Canmore, Canada, the previous weekend with another triumph on North American soil.

It was his 11th podium this season, 9th gold-6th in sprint, despite having dealt with COVID and the flu—and 91st career podium, 69th gold, 47th in sprint in 8 seasons. Klæbo is only 27.

“It tastes good,” Klæbo told Viaplay after the race. “It is a special trail that is rock hard. It is the toughest park I have skied in.”

The performance prompted former cross-country skier and Viaplay analyst Niklas Dyrhaug to use the superlatives.

“He masters all types of trails. Johannes is so playful and good technically. Thus, he manages to save energy compared to the rest. You just must take your hat off to him.”

Klæbo was appreciative of the atmosphere and is looking for more.

“I have to say that it is one of the wildest things I have come across in terms of mood,” he said. “I hope it is not the last time we will compete here.”

He stayed well after the race talking to kids and signing autographs.

Taugbøl and Even Northug gave Norwegians three in the six-skier final. The former finished third, while Northug had his podium chance spoiled after breaking a pole.

“An insanely fun day. It was a crazy good atmosphere,” Taugbøl said. “I was very hungry for revenge after two mediocre races in Canmore. There is rarely anything to do with Johannes. I tried to solve it in my own way.”

Overall World Cup leader Harald Østberg Amundsen and Pål Golberg reached the quarterfinals.

Erik Valnes, ranked third in sprints entering the weekend, was 32nd in the prologue, missing the cut of top 30 for a quarterfinal spot.

Klæbo was clearly the fastest when he won the prologue ahead of Pellegrino.

In addition to the sprint double in Canmore, Klæbo demonstrated his strength when he won ahead of Frenchman Lucas Chanavat in Goms at the end of January. Chanavat triumphed in both sprints in the Tour de Ski.

Skistad on the podium

Kristine Stavås Skistad had a tough time against the Swedish juggernaut and took 3rd place in the freestyle sprint.

Skistad was already on the verge of breaking out in the semifinals after finishing third in the heat with, among others, Swedes Jonna Sundling and Linn Svahn. The 25-year-old secured a place in the final as a “lucky loser.” The quarterfinal includes five heats of six skiers each. The top two skiers in each heat advance plus two other skiers with the next best times, who are “lucky losers.” The semifinal included two heats of six skiers, with the top two in each heat plus the “lucky losers,” the next two best times. Three Swedes were in the final.

“Today I think third place is good,” Skistad told Viaplay after the race. “It’s a track that requires a lot of capacity, so I must keep working on it. I think I have received very good results in Canada and the USA.”

In the final, she again had a tough time against Sundling and Svahn. The former won the race and took her first World Cup victory in over a year. Sundling was sprint world champion in Planica, Slovenia, last year.

“I am very happy that I am finally on top of the podium again,” Sundling told Viaplay. “It was good to know that I could endure all the way. The atmosphere was absolutely fantastic. We are not spoiled by this.”

The 29-year-old was praised by Skistad: “It was deserved for Sundling. She has struggled a bit to take the win in the last few races, so it was fun that she got a boost. She was strong today.”

Lotta Udnes Weng, Anne Kjersti Kalvå, Tiril Udnes Weng, and Mathilde Myhrvold were all eliminated in the quarterfinals. Heidi Weng exited in the prologue, finishing 32nd.

“It’s a track that should suit me well, so it’s a drag,” said Tiril Udnes Weng.

For World Cup leader Diggins, the day’s sprint was extra special. She ran her very first World Cup race in her home environment, and the ski arena is around 35 miles from her hometown of Afton. She hadn’t skied competitively at Wirth since 2011 when she won three golds as a junior skier. During the warm-up, she was moved to tears. Whenever she was announced, she waved her poles and flashed her trademark smile at the crowd.

She seemed to tire in the final and placed 4th. Her imprint was already on this local World Cup—and she had the 10km individual start freestyle the following day.

“It was the most emotional day in my career,” she told Viaplay. “The whole country turned up. This has been very special and something we have been working toward for so long. People love cross-country skiing here, and I’m so grateful.”

The Swedish cross-country women have excelled in sprints so far this season. Before Saturday’s sprint, seven of the first nine competitions in the discipline had ended with Swedish triumph. Svahn traveled to the United States with five sprint victories in her bag, while teammate Emma Ribom has run away with two victories.

On Saturday, it was Sundling’s turn to win a sprint race.

Skistad is the only woman who has been able to crack the Swedes with triumphs in Granåsen and Canmore.

U.S. sensation: Gus Schumacher wins 10km individual start freestyle

Why should Diggins get all the Minnesota love?

Gus Schumacher skated to a sensational victory in Feb 18’s 10km individual start freestyle. The course was three laps of 3.3km. In individual start, skiers enter the track 30 seconds apart with a mix of faster and slower skiers, with the top ones starting toward the end. As the faster ones join, the leaderboard can change quickly. At one point, Thomas Maloney Westgaard of Ireland led. He finished 6th.

Schumacher was 35th of 75 skiers. His 20:52.7 put him in first and a spot on the “hot seat,” a chair for the leader. He enjoyed it, wrapped his legs over the right arm of the chair. Enjoy it while it lasts. Amundsen was leaving 56th, Klæbo 64th, Simen Hegstad Krüger 68th, Golberg 70th.

Schumacher, a 23-year-old from Anchorage, Alaska, stayed seated. Amundsen crossed in 20:57.1, Golberg 20:58.5, Klæbo 20:59.2 for 2-3-4, Krüger 8th in 21:02.9.

It was Schumacher’s first podium of his career. Diggins hugged him and teared up. His male and female teammates lifted him and carried him around to be saluted.

Klæbo has won all of the last four sprints in the World Cup, but the Trønder saw himself beaten in both distance races in Canmore the week before and now the loss in Minneapolis.

Mattis Stenshagen placed 13th, Didrik Tønseth 17th, Taugbøl 37th.

Swedish women dominate

Sundling got the double, winning the 10km individual start freestyle in 22:38.9. The victory was her ninth individual in the World Cup, but the first in distance. Sundling beat teammate Frida Karlsson by 15.4 seconds.

The Swedish sprinter delivered a magnificent race. Leaving 38th, Sundling had the best time at all checkpoints.

Asked on Outside Watch, whether Schumacher’s win inspired the American women in their race, Sophia Laukli said, “We felt, ‘Holy crap. We really have to come through, now.’”

Everyone was pretty sure of who.

Diggins was number 58 of 62 skiers. She had one last opportunity to please the crowd. Svahn’s 23:13.9 time had the Swedes set-up for a sweep of the podium.

At the first checkpoint at 1.9km, Diggins trailed by more than seven seconds. Up ahead the leaders kept changing. At 3.3km, she flipped spots with Svahn. At the 9.70km point, Diggins time was 22:37.9, and she was now ahead of Svahn’s pace. Just as it looked like she would have to settle for 4th, Diggins put out one last burst and slipped into the bronze medal in 23:10.7, 3.2 better than Svahn, 31.8 behind Sundling.

Anne Kjersti Kalvå was Norway’s best runner in 9th place. She was just over a minute behind the winning time. Astrid Øyre Slind and Heidi Weng were number 12 and 13, respectively, while the twins Tiril and Lotta Udnes Weng placed 21st and 23rd respectively. Mathilde Myhrvold was 30th.

The American public came together in a folk festival in Minneapolis for the weekend.

“I think it should be fixed on the World Cup calendar,” Klæbo told Viaplay. “It is important in view of the interest in Jessie and the American national team.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit Kleinerprweb.com; beyondthecold.com.