Diggins wraps up home World Cup event with third place in 10k race

On the eve of the Loppet Cup, Jessie Diggins was asked what it would mean to her to stand on top of the podium. Despite the emotion swirling around her first World Cup event in her home country, she wanted to keep the pressure low.

"If I have my priorities straight, it won't mean anything different than being dead last,'' the Afton native said. "The real win was getting to be here.''

She felt the same way Sunday, following a third-place finish in the women's 10-kilometer freestyle in the final race of the event. Jonna Sundling of Sweden took the big prize for the second day in a row, blazing over the course at Theodore Wirth Park to add the 10k title to the freestyle sprint victory she logged on Saturday. Sundling finished in 22 minutes, 38.9 seconds, followed by countrywoman Frida Karlsson and Diggins.

Only the Minnesotan stood in the way of a Swedish sweep. Diggins moved into third place at the 3.3k mark and held firm, finishing 3.2 seconds ahead of fourth-place Linn Svahn. The podium finish helped Diggins maintain her lead over Svahn for the World Cup overall crown, giving her a 257-point advantage with four stops left in the season.

None of that was at the forefront of Diggins' mind. Earlier in the day, she helped lift Gus Schumacher onto the shoulders of his U.S. teammates after his momentous victory in the men's 10k, when he became only the third American man to win a World Cup event.

In the afterglow of her own race, Diggins' teammates returned the favor, hoisting her up to blow kisses to a crowd of 20,000.

"This whole weekend has been my career dream come true,'' Diggins said. "It barely feels real.

"Everyone came ready to celebrate skiing in this country. This is something I've been working towards for a very long time. I've never been more proud, maybe of anything.''

Race results: Men's 10k | Women's 10k

Diggins was especially pleased at how fans embraced the first World Cup held in the U.S. since 2001. A total of 40,000 attended the two days of racing. They mobbed the autograph zones, treated the athletes like celebrities and created what several skiers called a "wall of noise'' around the course.

The Loppet Foundation organized the races, and executive director Claire Wilson said officials of the International Ski and Snowboard Federation — which oversees the World Cup — were impressed. Given the rave reviews from athletes and fans, she expects the Loppet Foundation to discuss hosting another World Cup in the future.

"It was an incredible weekend,'' Wilson said. "We're not a big organization, but we showed we can do this. And it aligned with our mission to connect people to the outdoors and build community.''

The Loppet Cup concluded on another bluebird day, perfect weather for skiing or spectating. Schumacher started the day with a monumental surprise. A native of Madison, Wis., who grew up in Alaska, he won the men's race in 20:52.7, defeating men's World Cup points leader Harald Oestberg Amundsen of Norway by 4.4 seconds.

Diggins was among the first to hug Schumacher. An hour before her own race, she sobbed over his triumph, adding one more layer of emotion to a weekend already overflowing with it.

She had said for months that her only objective in Minneapolis was to have fun, making sure she wasn't so tightly focused that she didn't fully absorb a World Cup that was years in the making. On Saturday, Diggins finished fourth in the freestyle sprint. She returned Sunday to even louder cheers for her signature race.

The 10k was an interval start, and Sundling, 38th in the start order, clocked the fastest time at every checkpoint to set a high bar. Diggins started 58th. By the time she took the course, it was growing slushy under the bright sun, becoming a little slower with each of the three laps.

"My strategy was to go as hard as I could the whole time, and try to really finish with about 2k left,'' Diggins said. "And then, just hope the crowd would carry me back to the finish line. And they did.''

The roar that followed her around the course, Diggins said, was the loudest she has ever heard. When she crossed the finish line in a time of 23:10.7, she collapsed onto the snow, spent but still smiling.

Diggins praised fans for embracing all the athletes, no matter what colors they wore. Amundsen paid the ultimate compliment. He said the spectators at Wirth Park outnumbered those at events on his home turf in Norway, cross-country skiing's epicenter.

"On the longest uphill, it was absolutely crazy,'' he said. "I couldn't hear myself think or breathe. I really want to ski in America again. Maybe next year.''

Diggins wasn't thinking that far ahead. Sunday, she wanted to remain completely in the moment, taking in every last memory.

"My only goal was to enjoy it, and just go as hard as I could and leave it all out on the course,'' she said. "And I did. I definitely did.''