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Matthias Schrader
Jessica Diggins, of the United States, celebrates after winning the gold medal in the during women's team sprint freestyle cross-country skiing final at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Skiing against the most decorated winter Olympian in history, Jessie Diggins did for her teammate what she couldn’t do for herself — win an Olympic gold medal.

“In the final stretch I was just thinking, 'Go, go, go,'” said an emotional Diggins after she stretched her ski across the finish line just .19 of a second ahead of Sweden’s Stina Nilsson.

“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.”

Diggins and Salt Lake City-born and Anchorage-raised Kikkan Randall ended a 41-year cross-country medal drought for Team USA with a victory in the team sprints at Alpensia Nordic Center Wednesday night as they crossed the line in 15 minutes, 56.47 seconds. Nilsson and Charlotte Kalla earned silver with a time of 15:56.66, while Norway's Marit Bjoergen and Maiken Caspersen Falla claimed the bronze at 15:59.44.

Diggins has finished fifth three times and sixth once in the 2018 Games, but she said if she was going to win a medal, she’s grateful it was this one.

“It feels unreal,” said the Minnesota native. “I can’t believe it just happened, but we’ve been feeling so good these entire Games and just having it happen at a team event means so much more to me than any individual medal would.”

Both skiers have been so agonizingly close, for so very long, that they had a hard time coming to terms with the idea that they were Olympic champions.

“Hearing it out loud, it still doesn’t feel real,” said Randall, a 35-year-old five-time Olympian who had competed in a record 18 Olympic events without winning a medal before she and Diggins shocked the Nordic world. “It’s what I’ve been working on for 20 years, and with this team, for the last five years now. Wow, it’s just so fun to put it together.”

Randall has been the anchor and foundation of the U.S. cross-country program for two decades. She was expected to end the U.S. medal drought in her sport in 2014, and when she didn’t, some speculated that she might retire. Instead, she took some time off, had a baby and returned as committed as ever.

Park City’s Rosie Brennan is on the team, and she said the reason the team has made the strides it has, including World Cup wins and world championships, is because of Randall. In fact, when the U.S. Ski Team dropped the program briefly in 2006-07, it was Randall who kept the women committed to competing at the World Cup and Olympic level.

“Kikkan, that didn’t stop her in the least. She still had her goals in mind. Watching her push through that, accomplish in spite of that, to become the best, it opened all of our eyes,” Brennan said. "With a little bit of courage and a lot of belief, it showed all of us what we could accomplish. It revamped all of our hopes and dreams.”

That persistence, resilience and unwavering faith in her abilities and those of her teammates laid the foundation for what happened Wednesday night.

Matthias Schrader
United States' Jessica Diggins, left, and Kikkan Randall celebrate after winning the gold medal in the women's team sprint freestyle cross-country skiing final at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.(AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Diggins said that as they prepared for the race, there was no doubt that they knew a gold medal was possible — a belief that was shared by more than just the two women who skied in the race.

"Our whole team had that belief, and everyone was there screaming,” Diggins said. “I don't know if you have that many teams where everyone is out there on the fence yelling their faces off, and I just think we had a lot of support behind of us."

Randall said she and Kalla, Nilsson’s teammate, were engaged in a “screaming match” — each of them trying to will their teammate to the finish line first.

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“I was going, ‘Come on, Diggy!’” she said laughing. “I had so much adrenaline as she was coming down, but if there’s anybody I’d have 100 percent faith in coming down that finishing stretch as fast as possible, it’s Jessie. So that was just a wonderful feeling to take it all in and watch it happen.”

After Diggins crossed the line, Randall tackled her.

“I was like, ‘Did we just win the Olympics?’” Diggins said, glancing at Randall, as they describe what happened after they realized they’d won. “You were like, ‘Yeah, we did!’ That was amazing.”