ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA—Jessie Diggins didn't expect to win a medal Thursday. By her own admission, the 10-kilometer classic is her weakest event.
That was perfectly OK with the Afton native, who actually found it liberating. During her momentary break from the immense pressure of the Beijing Olympics, Diggins dabbed glitter on her teammates' cheeks. She had an emotional rite-of-passage moment with young Novie McCabe, racing for the first time at an Olympic Games.
Though she wasn't among the favorites, Diggins still finished eighth, proving she is in razor-sharp form at the halfway point of her Beijing Games schedule. Norway's Therese Johaug got the victory, winning her second gold of the Games. Finland's Kerttu Niskanen and Krista Parmakoski took silver and bronze.
Diggins now has a bronze medal and two other top-eight finishes in her first three races at Zhangjiakou. Thursday, her goal was to simply savor the racing, and the feeling of competing at her third Winter Games.
"I was really, really happy today,'' said Diggins, who won her bronze Tuesday in the freestyle sprint. "I was just so focused on enjoying it. I was like, 'Great. No pressure. This is just my day to go out there and enjoy racing at the Olympics.' I was just really focused on being in the moment and giving it all I had.''
Diggins led a group of four Americans in the 10km classic. She finished in 29 minutes, 15.1 seconds, a little more than 68 seconds behind Johaug's winning time of 28:06.3. It was a close race for gold, with Niskanen only four-tenths of a second back, and Parmakoski edged Russia's Natalia Nepryaeva by just one-tenth of a second for bronze.
The other U.S. finishers Thursday were Rosie Brennan (13th), McCabe (24th) and Hailey Swirbul (32nd). McCabe, 20, is the youngest member of the U.S. cross-country team in Beijing and made her Olympic debut on another bright, sunny and brisk day in Zhangjiakou.
Before the Olympics, Diggins hoped to start all six women's events at the Winter Games. Her coaches were open to it, but they took a wait-and-see position. They expected the extreme cold would cause athletes to expend even more energy, and they needed to see how Diggins' body recovered from each race.
Diggins said Thursday she considered skipping the 10km. She decided to forge ahead, recognizing it would be a good way to hone her form in the classic technique in advance of Wednesday's classic team sprint.
"I thought it would be good preparation to dial in that kick work with no pressure,'' she said. "How does it feel when I'm full of lactic acid, and I can't feel my legs? What do I need to do and think and say to myself to get up that hill with power? Now I know.''
Though she's famed for her freestyle speed, Diggins has worked hard to elevate her classic skiing. She knew coming into Thursday's race that her fitness was not in question.
Diggins used the Tour de Ski, a post-Christmas series of six races in eight days, to push her conditioning to an even higher level for the Olympics. Following the Tour, the U.S. team held a pre-Olympic preparation camp in Italy, in an area at the same elevation as Zhangjiakou. Her sixth-place performance in Saturday's skiathlon proved her fitness was exactly where she hoped it would be.
That kept Diggins' confidence high through her first three races. Before the 10km, she got another burst of positivity from Wednesday night's medal ceremony. At the Beijing Games, athletes are being given mascots at a brief victory ceremony immediately after competition, with all the pomp, circumstance and hardware saved for nightly medal ceremonies on the Olympic plazas.
"I was really focused on enjoying the moment with the medal ceremony,'' Diggins said. "It was so special to call my family and my fiancé, and come back to the apartment and show the medal to our staff and coaches. Then you have to turn it around and come back (for the next race). It's a roller coaster.''
McCabe said the racing was "really tough'' Thursday. Though temperatures were in the low 20s, a biting wind sliced across the course, which featured some long climbs.
Diggins' finish was her best in a 10km classic this season and kept intact her string of top-10 finishes at the Winter Games. She has placed eighth or better in nine consecutive Olympic races, with the women's 4x5km relay up next on Saturday.
The pressure is sure to return. Diggins hopes to keep the good vibes going, too.
"Whether it's a great day or a poor day or anywhere in between, it doesn't matter,'' she said. "You just have to focus on the next thing and prepare as best you can.''