Fresh snow 'a gift' for organizers of Minneapolis World Cup cross-country skiing event

Strictly speaking, they didn't need the snow. Organizers of the Loppet Cup had the cross-country loops at Theodore Wirth Park in fine condition before Wednesday's precipitation, using human-made snow to groom the racing surface for this weekend's World Cup.

But oh, how they wanted the real thing. The 5 inches of snow that fell on Wirth Park put a smile on countless faces Friday, when World Cup athletes arrived on site to test the courses. In addition to creating an instant winter atmosphere, it changed the racing surfaces a bit, bringing them closer to the composition typical in World Cup events.

American skier Julia Kern said the courses for Saturday's freestyle sprint and Sunday's freestyle 10-kilometer races were in excellent condition, praising the Loppet Foundation — which is staging the event — for its work in preparing them.

"The grooming was impeccable today," Kern said. "It was skiing unbelievably well. Talking to other athletes and teams, they were blown away by the course conditions.

"It's fast. It's firm. It's a mix of man-made and new snow, which is what we're pretty used to on the World Cup. I think it's going to ski really well and be really fair and fun courses."

Course maps | Skiers to watch

Loppet Foundation Executive Director Claire Wilson said the courses will be different with the natural snow added. She emphasized they were ready for racing before Wednesday, but she said the new snow helps.

It was a mood lifter, too. "It was so emotional," Wilson said, describing how she felt when the long-awaited snow finally showed up. "It felt like a gift. We wanted to welcome everyone to snowy Minneapolis, and then, we got to."

Back home at last

Jessie Diggins has become used to living out of a suitcase. With most or all World Cup competitions in Europe, Americans on the tour head overseas in November and spend nearly five months abroad.

It's been 23 years since the last World Cup cross-country race in the U.S. and 13 years since Diggins, who is from Afton, raced in her home state. The three-time Olympic medalist said Friday it was "really emotional" to know she would finally compete again on familiar turf. She's also relishing the rare chance to come home during the World Cup season.

After this weekend's races, the tour resumes March 1 in Lahti, Finland. Diggins will stay in Minnesota for several days and plans to compete in next weekend's American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin, but she's most looking forward to just being with her family. Her husband, Wade Poplawski, gets to town Friday night.

"I haven't seen him since November, so mostly, I'm just excited to spend time with him," Diggins said. "That's my number one priority for the next week … see my family, which I don't get to spend that much time with anymore."

As a local, she offered a tip for other athletes looking for a signature Minneapolis experience.

"I did tell some people to go try a Jucy Lucy," she said. "It's one of the things we're known for. I think it went over well."

Ogden out for U.S. men

It's been an outstanding World Cup season for the American men, who have reached the podium twice — marking the first time since 1983 that two U.S. men earned World Cup podium finishes in the same season. But one of them, Ben Ogden, won't be racing in Minneapolis.

Ogden revealed last week he has mononucleosis. It isn't known how long he will be sidelined, but he could miss the rest of the season, which ends March 17. He currently is seventh in the World Cup sprint standings and was third in a freestyle sprint in Toblach, Italy, in December.

Spectators at the Loppet Cup will get to see JC Schoonmaker, the first U.S. man to reach a World Cup cross-country podium since 2017. Schoonmaker, who was third in a classic sprint in December, will race in Saturday's sprint. He said it's "a bummer" that Ogden is out.

"Ben is a huge part of this team," Schoonmaker said. "He brings the mood up. He's super funny and an awesome guy, so hearing his season was going to be ending was pretty devastating. I know he'll come back stronger next season."

Group effort

Kern noted that 33 Americans will be competing this weekend. She said one of the team's big goals is a high finish in the Nations Cup, which ranks countries by their athletes' combined points earned in World Cup races.

The Americans were fourth last year, and Kern hopes racing at home can help them hold — or improve — their current third-place spot behind Norway and Sweden.

"We've been following the standings this year, which has been a really motivating factor for the team," Kern said. "We've never been ranked third. We're really going for that."

Not in attendance?

Saturday's skiing can be streamed on Peacock. Sunday's racing will be televised on CNBC and NBC.