Randall and Diggins dig deep to end U.S. wait for cross-country gold

Kikkan Randall (left) and Jessie Diggins celebrate their cross-country team sprint success on the podium as they receive their gold medals. Lars Baron/Getty Images

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins jumped on the podium and didn't even wait to be presented with their miniature mascots before running stage left and right to warmly embrace their Swedish and Norwegian rivals in the silver and bronze positions, respectively.

A 42-year drought was over, and they wanted to share their joy with everyone. Randall and Diggins captured gold in the women's team sprint freestyle, earning Team USA's first medal in cross-country skiing since 1976 and its first-ever Olympic gold in that sport.

"I can't believe it just happened," Diggins said. "But we've been feeling so good these entire Games, and just having it happen as a team event means so much more to me than any individual medal ever would."

Diggins, who had come agonizingly close to medaling in the 10-kilometer freestyle last week, refused to be denied this time. With about 100 meters to go, she suddenly split off from behind Sweden's Stina Nilsson, the sprint gold medalist, pulled even with her for several meters and then surged unexpectedly ahead.

"In the final stretch, I was just thinking, 'Go, go, go,'" Diggins said. "I'm giving it everything I had, and I've got someone who I really love and care about waiting for me at the finishing line, and I just want to make her proud." She collapsed after stretching for the finish line. Randall fell on the snow to hug her.

At the six-and-a-quarter-kilometer mark, the last exchange, the U.S. was in third place, 0.75 seconds behind Norway. The U.S.'s eventual winning time of 15:56:47 was only 0.19 seconds ahead of silver medalists Sweden.

This result, while a genuine shock, isn't entirely out of the blue. Diggins and Randall are enormously accomplished cross-country racers. Randall is a five-time Olympian who, along with Diggins, won the U.S.'s first world championship gold medal in the women's team sprint in 2013. Diggins has made 18 World Cup podiums in the past six years. And both women won medals as individuals in the 2017 world championships.

Randall and Diggins posted the fastest time in the semifinal round, and on Wednesday night, they staged an Olympic performance worthy of their celebrated careers.

"We got stronger for every round, we had good positions, we had really good skis that really kept us in there," Randall said after the race.

Even their fellow competitors were happy to see the U.S. duo finally capture this elusive prize. Switzerland's Laurien van der Graaff, who along with her teammate Nadine Faehndrich came in fourth, praised the U.S. team.

"I think it's really nice to see Kikkan, who has had a really great career and was here last Olympics," she said. "America, they have been strong for years and growing a really good team, so they really deserve it."

Afterward, Randall was in disbelief that her life's work had culminated in a victory like this. "It still doesn't feel real. It's what I've been working on for 20 years and with this team for the last five years and wow, it's just so fun to put it together tonight, finally."