RUMFORD — Maybe Jessie Diggins was too inexperienced at this level to realize that her chances of winning a U.S. Nordic national championship were kaput.

Leading Saturday’s freestyle sprint race on an uphill climb not far from the turn toward the finish line at Broomhall Stadium, Diggins took, well, a world-class digger.

“I was going up and someone’s ski caught me,” Diggins said. “I twisted and I fell, and the whole pack went by me.”

The whole pack, meaning the best of the best, arms and legs working at their intuitive peak, adrenaline screaming through their bodies. The idea of Diggins getting up, catching up and even getting close enough to read the number on the bib draped over the winner’s back was absurd.

Diggins, 19, didn’t know any better.

“I was like, ‘Get up! Get up! Get up!’ At first I couldn’t believe that just happened,” Diggins said. “Everything else was so perfect and how I’d envisioned it beforehand. It just reinforces in my mind that you can’t ever give up. You don’t know. You just don’t know.”

With the help of an enormous downhill draft and a daring hole-shot maneuver, Diggins ducked underneath Lauren Fritz and Holly Brooks before the final straightaway. That mighty burst of momentum carried her past Sadie Bjornsen and Eliska Hajkova, too.

Then came the finishing kick to reel in Sophia Caldwell of Dartmouth College, and it was all over but the photo finish.

Three tense minutes, one two-way radio conversation and a whisper in the ear later, Diggins — a three-time Minnesota high school champion, still considered a “junior” on skiing’s world stage — could add a national gold medal to her jewelry case.

“I didn’t know if it was Sophie or me, but either way I’m really happy. These are really good girls to race with. I’m just so lucky to have been a part of that,” Diggins said. “I was just hoping I was flexible enough (at the finish). I was thinking, ‘It’s going to come down to a lunge. I’d better get it out there.’”

The men’s elite race was less surprising and a runaway, by comparison.

Torin Koos led essentially from wire-to-wire and crossed the wire ahead of Simeon Hamilton by more than the length of a ski. Comfortably enough, anyhow, that Koos was inspired to raise his right ski pole heavenward with a triumphant fist pump.

The victory was Koos’ second of the championships.

“It’s a world championship year, and these are my first races domestically,“ Koos said, “so to come out with two wins and a fifth is solid. I’ll take it.”

Early rounds of nationals week were an endurance race for both the competitors and race organizers, who scrambled to prepare the course after a New Year’s weekend of 50-degree temperatures destroyed Mother Nature’s December handiwork. All was well Saturday for the fan-friendly finale.

Freestyle sprints are the cross-country equivalent of a NASCAR short track race. Racers depart in 15-second intervals in early-morning qualifying, then compete in seeded clusters of six skiers in quarterfinal, semifinal and championship races around the 1.4-kilometer loop.

Diggins, who is putting off college for at least a year to focus on her skiing, led every women’s round.

“I felt good. The skate is my favorite thing. After the first round I was feeling strong and I thought, ‘Oh, man, I just hope I don’t fall or crash.’ And I did, but it ended up OK,” Diggins said. “I was so pumped. I’d never been part of a final at nationals before.”

Her week began with a ninth-place finish in the classical sprint. Diggins was fourth in the 10-kilometer classical and did not compete in the 20-kilometer freestyle.

Caldwell also scored her only podium finish of the competition. Bjornsen took the bronze.

The victory by Koos, a 30-year-old veteran from Washington, didn’t pack the same novelty or drama.

Koos’ biggest disappointment of the day was digging his way back from a fourth-place time in qualifying, where Colin Rodgers posted the fastest clip.

“That was slightly frustrating, but that’s just one of the four races. I just came back out. That stuff kind of happens. We definitely had better boards in these rounds than we did in the qualifier,” Koos said. “I knew my strength especially right now is that I get better as the day goes on. Some people get a little more tired.”

The start-stop nature of the sprints tests endurance and concentration levels. Koos won his quarterfinal, semifinal and final races in the space of one hour.

His strategy in the medal race was to lead out of the blocks and control the pace.

“You have to have strong tactics here. One thing I’m good at is I can respond to anybody’s speed. So if anybody makes a move, I can cover it and put myself in a position I need to be to win the race,” Koos said. “The only thing that could happen was I could put myself in a position where I could be caught behind some slower athletes and somebody else could make it a parade at the front.”

Following Koos and Hamilton across the line was Lars Flora, who claimed his third medal of the week.

Saturday’s other winners were Ryan Scott and Rebecca Rorabaugh in the U23 division, and Silas Talbot and Mackenzie Kanady in Juniors.

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