Jessie Diggins is a favorite in both the individual freestyle sprint and the classic team sprint, in which she won gold in 2018 in dramatic fashion.
The sprints are just two of the six possible races that Diggins will take on, but they are bound to be among the most exciting. We asked former Olympian Caitlin Gregg what spectators should watch for along the route.
The sprint route
A mini map of the whole Nordic skiing complex in Beijing with the smaller sprint route highlighted.
The women's Nordic skiing sprint route, which is the same for the freestyle individual sprint (Feb. 8, 2 a.m. Central time) and the classic team sprint (Feb. 16, 3 a.m. Central time), is part of a complex for all Nordic skiing taking place about 112 miles northwest of Beijing.
The challenge
The sprint course will make for an unusually level playing field, said Caitlin Gregg, who competed in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, because few athletes will have skied there before. Typically, complexes like this will have been used in World Cup events before the Olympics, but that hasn't been the case for the 2022 Games because of COVID-19 restrictions.
"It's probably the most unknown course the athletes have faced yet," Gregg said.
The Olympic women's cross-country skiing sprint course, with elevations highlighted in different colors.The Olympic women's cross-country skiing sprint course, with elevations highlighted in different colors.
Caitlin Gregg's sprint course analysis
The laps: In the individual sprint, racers will circle the route once. In the team event, each skier will go around three times, passing off at each lap, for a total of six laps.
1 Initial turns: The course's challenges begin with two small turns almost immediately, Gregg said. "Having two slight turns so early in the course means athletes will start very hard to get into a good position." After qualifying rounds, the races will be in heats of six skiers, which could make it crowded.
2 First climb: "The next obstacle is the large steep climb that has a 30-meter elevation gain. This will be a long, grueling section that will separate the fittest athletes from the rest."
3 Reaching the peak: "The top of the climb has an even steeper pitch in the final meters before the athletes begin descending down the other side. This will really cause already-fatigued athletes to dig even deeper to keep their legs moving well."
4 Downhill: After a long climb, heading back down could be tricky, Gregg said, as exhaustion sets in. "The downhill looks to be steep and fast but also has a number of turns that the athletes will have to navigate. … With its high-speed turns, [it] could be an area where tired legs cause athletes to fall or collide."
5 Final charge: "Although athletes will be carrying a lot of speed down the big descent, there is still one more uphill to navigate. This uphill will be key in finding whatever you have left to get a good position into the finishing turn and lanes in the stadium. It is short, but steep and will be key in the final rounds of the sprint heats."
Sprint course elevation
The longest climb on the course is 30 meters – about 100 feet. In the Twin Cities, a similar climb, about 25 meters, is in the La Squadra loop at Minneapolis' Theodore Wirth Park, Gregg said. A shorter 20-meter climb, which is closer to the steepness, can be found on the Boulder Ridge loop at Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington, she said.
An elevation chart of the women's sprint course, which is 1.5km long. The elevation goes between 1,640 and 1,670 meters above sea level, with a 30m climb in the middle of the race.An elevation chart of the women's sprint course, which is 1.5km long. The elevation goes between 1,640 and 1,670 meters above sea level, with a 30m climb in the middle of the race.
Skiing styles
Classic skiing is the oldest style and the one most people are familiar with. It is generally considered easier to learn because it mimics walking in many ways — skis largely stay parallel to each other with a "kick" in the middle of the stride to glide forward.
A photo diagram of Jessie Diggins shows how classic skiers keep their skis parallel and kick in the middle of a stride.A photo diagram of Jessie Diggins shows how classic skiers keep their skis parallel and kick in the middle of a stride.
DMITRI LOVETSY, Associated Press
See this in the team sprint, in which Diggins is largely considered a shoo-in for the team as a defending gold medalist, although her teammate could remain unnamed until the day before the race. Classic style was seen in the first leg of the skiathlon event, below. "There's a lot of grit in this race," Gregg said.
Freestyle, or "skate" skiing, often looks like the athlete is ice skating, like Diggins below during the 2018 Olympic Games. It can be more difficult to learn because it requires coordination of a V-style of skiing, pressing the body's weight into the edge of the ski on one side, pushing forward and to the side laterally, and then shifting weight to the other side. Skiers generally go faster while in freestyle.
A photo diagram of Jessie Diggins shows how freestyle skiers push on the edge of the skis and shift their weight side to side.A photo diagram of Jessie Diggins shows how freestyle skiers push on the edge of the skis and shift their weight side to side.
CARLOS GONZALEZ, Star Tribune
See this in the individual sprint, where Diggins is a medal favorite. This style of skiing is really where Diggins shines, Gregg said. Qualification rounds are done in a time-trial style, where each athlete races individually. But after the top 30 are determined, they go into heats of six, which Gregg said creates a more "high-stakes race." Diggins, below racing in the 2018 Games, and teammate Kikkan Randall won the first Nordic skiing gold for the U.S. in this event in Pyeongchang in 2018.