Jessie Diggins is ready to make Olympic history (again)
To understand why that gold medal was so important – and how Diggins could have been the one to dive all the way to the finish – you have to understand that she came of age at the perfect time in cross-country history. in the USA.
The sport is huge in Europe, where pros are treated like celebrities. But historically, it has only resonated in small pockets in the United States. “I don’t think American sports culture has ever really been organized around sustained discomfort,” says Zach Caldwell, a coach who has worked with several athletes on the US Cross-Country Ski Team. Fortunately, Afton, Minnesota, where Diggins grew up, is in one of those pockets. His parents, Deb and Clay, are both avid skiers, and Diggins grew up going to big, weekend-long cross-country ski festivals with hundreds of fans ringing bells and with hot blueberry soup. at refueling stations.
She first snapped the three-prong bindings at age three, and some of her earliest winter memories are playing tag and football on skis with the Minnesota Youth Ski Club. Diggins was naturally good at almost everything she tried: dancing, swimming, athletics. But it soon became clear that she had the potential to become an exceptional skier.
“A technique that takes normal people years to perfect, she nailed it in a minute and a half,” says Kris Hansen, who coached the cross-country team at Stillwater High School. Diggins joined the JV team from Stillwater while still in seventh grade and was thrust into college at the end of the year. It was during a two-mile stint around Christmas in Diggins’ eighth year that Hansen realized his rising star was more than fast. Diggins jumped into the anchor leg with the Stillwater Ponies by a minute and a half. There was a skier from another team that she had to pass for her team to win, but she didn’t know which one. “I felt like I was going to die, but I kept looking up and seeing a Forest Lake skier and thinking, Shit, I have to go get her,says Diggins. She finished in a total sprint, unable to breathe and on the verge of fainting, in first place.
Afterwards, she asked Hansen, “Isn’t it weird when you start having tunnel vision and you get a taste of iron in your mouth?” This took Hansen by surprise. A metallic taste can occur from increased pressure or fluid buildup in the lungs during extreme exertion. “There are very few athletes who push themselves that hard,” Hansen says. “Certainly not many who do when they’re 14.” To this day, Diggins believed she had given 100% in the races. Only now had she discovered her true limits. It felt like a superpower. If she could train her body to go that hard consistently, a whole new world of running would open up.
On the World Cup circuit, Diggins has developed a reputation for her scrappy racing style and penchant for smiles and glitter, which she wears in excess and dole out to her teammates. (They call him Sparkle Chipmunk.)
Over the next four years, Diggins established herself as one of the top high school runners in the nation. Simultaneously, the American national program was experiencing its own rise.
From mid-November to mid-March, World Cup athletes live on the road, traveling from venue to venue in places like Sweden, Germany, Italy, Finland, Russia and Norway. When the show debuted in the early 80s, USA was pretty good. The national program had a small men’s team that regularly won podiums, among its athletes Bill Koch, who won Olympic silver in 1976 and the overall World Cup title in 1982. There were also some strong women who achieved the best results, such as Alison Owen-Spencer, who won a test event in 1978 for what was soon to become the Women’s World Cup.
But this success was short-lived. For years, even the country’s top athletes have struggled to compete with their European counterparts. At first, there was no American women’s team at all. When Kikkan Randall started competing in World Cups this decade, she was the only woman to regularly represent the United States on the international stage.
That started to change in 2006, the year Diggins started high school. US cross-country head coach Pete Vordenberg, among others, persuaded the US Ski and Snowboard Association to double the team’s budget to a total of $1 million. The community has also improved its training and leaned towards the club model, in which athletes train with regional professional teams instead of working on their skills independently or at the Olympic Center in Park City, Utah.
The new approach worked. In 2006, Andy Newell claimed the first World Cup podium for the United States since 1983. In 2007, Randall became the first American to stand on a World Cup podium. Diggins joined the national team in 2011 when he was 20 years old. “We were growing and building,” says Diggins. “It was cool to feel like I was part of it.”