Going into the final leg, it was clear that Norway, Sweden and the USA would share the podium but the colour of medal for each was in doubt until the very last seconds.
The American duo of Jessica Diggins and Kikkan Randall produced the race of their lives, clocking 15.56.47 to leave their Scandinavian rivals battling it out for silver and bronze. In the decisive leg, Sweden’s Stina Nilsson crossed the line 19 hundredths of a second behind Diggins, leaving Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla trailing almost three seconds behind, meaning pre-event favourites Norway had to settle for bronze.
Diggins digs deep
“It feels unreal, I can't believe it just happened," said an ecstatic Diggins. “In the final stretch I was just thinking, 'Go, go, go, I'm giving it everything I had.”
She added that doing justice to her team-mate Randall provided her with the extra motivation to dig deep during the final surge for the line. “I've got someone who I really love and care about waiting for me at the finishing line and I just wanted to make her proud”.
Randall was equally effusive about her partner. “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," said the 35-year-old Randall, for whom PyeongChang 2018 represents a fifth Winter Olympics.
The Americans had not won a medal in cross-country since Bill Koch took silver in the 30km race in Innsbruck more than 40 years ago, and they had never previously topped the podium in the discipline.
Traditional powerhouses Norway and Sweden were expected to do battle for the top two places and led the way for almost the entire race.
With the racers taking turns to speed around the 1.176km track, Randall and Diggins had to give everything in order to stay in touch with the Scandinavians.
Randall kept the Americans in the hunt on her last leg, before handing over to Diggins for the sixth and final lap which was raced at a furious pace as the lead changed hands several times.
Having moved past Norway’s Falla, Diggins set her sights on leader Nilsson, who had already taken gold in the individual sprint. As they rounded the final bend the pace was electrifying.
Diggins surged past and thrust her ski across the line less than a ski’s length ahead of the Swede.
"I am very proud of our performance, I was really digging deep today to get the power over the last 100 metres,” reflected Nilsson. “But today USA was too strong and I really think they deserve the gold medal.”
Bjorgen casts her name in bronze
Although Norway missed out on gold, their place on the podium meant a momentous landmark for Marit Bjorgen. The 37-year old had won a medal in each of her three previous events at PyeongChang, and bronze in the team sprint meant she became the most successful Winter Olympian of all time, as her tally of 14 medals moved her one ahead of compatriot Ole Einar Bjorndahlen.
With the women’s 30km – an event in which she is the reigning Olympic champion – still to come on the final day of PyeongChang 2018, Bjorgen could still add to her medal haul.