IT WAS the snowy equivalent of Michael Phelps's out-touching Milorad Čavic´ in Beijing. By cross-country skiing standards, the U.S.'s margin of victory in the women's team sprint—Jessie Diggins crossed the line just .19 of a second ahead of Sweden's Stina Nilsson in an event that lasted nearly 16 minutes—was as close as it gets.
That Diggins had overtaken Nilsson and Norway's Maiken Falla in the last 100 meters only made the race's thrilling finish more memorable. "My lungs were on fire, and my legs were burning, but everyone was kind of running on fumes at that point," Diggins says. "I was so in the zone and wasn't feeling pain the way I normally do because I was just so focused on every single push, every single plant of my poles.... But in my peripheral [vision] I could tell, O.K., I've got her."
The superlative performances of the 26-year-old from Afton, Minn., and her teammate, Kikkan Randall—a five-time Olympian whose last lap left the team comfortably in the lead pack of three, all but securing a medal—gave the U.S. its first Olympic gold in cross-country skiing. It was the culmination of the countless hours of training, uphill sprints and virtual reality race simulations. In those last 30 seconds, as Diggins tapped into whatever reserves she had remaining, she was in a familiar situation.
"Two weeks before the Olympics, I ran a full team-sprint simulation, where the coaches joined in the race for the last 100 meters," Diggins says. "They came in on fresh legs, and so I had to figure out how to outsprint them and maneuver around them. They set up puzzles for me to solve that would challenge me tactically while I was fatigued."
Coupled with her physical preparation—a year-round cardio-heavy regimen—Diggins's mental edge helped make all the difference.
TRAIN FOR THE FINISH
Warm up by jogging for five to 10 minutes on any kind of terrain.
Find a hill and run up it for 30 seconds at a full sprint. Then walk back down. Repeat two more times. Consider this your semifinal.
Jog for five minutes to recover. Then repeat sprinting uphill and walking down, three times. Consider the third rep as the final 100 meters of the race, pushing to make it your hardest and fastest.