How Jessie Diggins' star was born in PyeongChang
Before she was trying to make American cross country skiing Olympic history, before she was winning World Cups, before she devoted her career to this sport, Jessie Diggins was in seventh grade, racing on the Stillwater High School junior varsity team, when she was pressed into action.
It was a championship event, and one of the varsity athletes had informed Stillwater’s girls’ cross country skiing coach Kris Hansen that she was sick and couldn’t race.
So Hansen went to find Diggins, who was sitting on the floor in the chalet, eating gummy bears and chatting with her friends, and asked if she wanted to compete in the varsity race in 20 minutes.
“You’ve got to imagine, these are teams with kids who are 18 years old,” Hansen said in a phone interview. “Most kids would feel a little bit of trepidation. But Jessie just jumped up and said yes.”
Diggins didn’t even have time to warm up. But she jogged around the parking lot, put her skis on, won the race and qualified for the state championships.
“That was when I was figuring out that I could be good at this,” Diggins said, over the phone. “It was such a motivating experience for me. “That was when I was like, ‘Wow, skiing is so cool.’”
It wasn’t long before she began race in high-profile events such as the junior nationals in 2008, where she drew the attention of Kikkan Randall, America’s most notable female cross country skier at the time.
“I saw this young girl ski by with a bouncing ponytail and I thought, ‘Wow, that girl has good energy. Like bright, bright energy,’” recalled Randall in a phone conversation.
A few days later, Randall, who had come to watch the junior nationals in her hometown of Anchorage, was signing autographs for the younger skiers. By the time she got to Diggins, she had run out of posters. So, she signed a piece of cardboard for her.
“Apparently, she had that up in her room for a while,” Randall said.
Fast forward a decade. The two were teammates in the team sprint freestyle in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, and pulled off arguably the greatest moment in American cross country skiing history. You’ve probably seen and heard the finish by now: Diggins coming from behind on the final leg on the downslope and beating the sprint classic gold medalist, Sweden’s Sweden Nilsson, by a hair in a thrilling finish; the emotional embrace between Randall and an exhausted Diggins at the finish line; the enthusiastic call from NBC’s Chad Salmela that went viral.
It was the first cross-country skiing gold medal ever for the United States, the first medal for the women’s side and the first American cross-country skiing medal of any color since 1976.
For the 35-year-old Randall, it was a fitting bookend to a lengthy career that spanned five Olympics and nine World Championships. But for Diggins, it was the first milestone in what could be a lasting legacy.
“It’s the beginning of a champion’s career,” Salmela said in a phone interview. “She’s emerged at 26 years old. She’s right where you need to be at 26 years old to become potentially the best skier in the world.”
Born to ski
Diggins grew up in the ski-crazed town of Afton, Minn., and before she could even walk, she was on skis. As a baby, her parents would put her in their backpack and go on ski dates every weekend to a different park.
“I grew up pulling on my dad’s hair, telling him to ‘mush!’ like he was a sled dog,” Diggins said. “I thought skiing was so fun.”
She played soccer, ran track, swam and took dance lessons growing up, but began specializing in skiing in high school.
Kris Hansen, the girls’ cross country ski coach at Stillwater High School, started coaching Diggins in middle school and saw a remarkable athlete from the beginning.
“Jessie was on this incredibly steep learning curve that was far steeper than any other athlete I’ve coached,” Hansen said. “She made herself strong very quickly. She grasped some of the elements of strategy that you wouldn’t expect that a young skier would pick up.”
She started training in the summer, roller skiing down the roads in Afton when there was no snow. In high school -- where she racked up three state titles -- she started qualifying for the national championships and decided to make skiing a career, forgoing a college scholarship.
That winter, she made her first world championship team, won her first national title and joined the national team. She team with Randall in 2013 to win the sprint relay at the world championships in Italy and placed second in the 10k freestyle at the 2015 world championships in Sweden, both times making history for female U.S. skiers.
But there was one thing missing for Diggins, for the cross country women and for the sport in America as a whole: Olympic gold.
Winning the gold
The 2018 Games were Randall’s fifth, and last. When Randall was in her prime, the state of cross country skiing in the United States was bleak.
“At that point, it was just [trying to find] a glimmer of something,” Randall said.
A top 15 finish in a World Cup event was considered an accomplishment, according to Hansen.
“The idea that we would, as a country, win an Olympic gold medal was kind of ridiculous,” she said. “Nobody even dreamed about that.”
After a strong showing in the world championships the previous year, though, 2018 was shaping up to be a turning point. Led by Diggins, the American women were widely expected to contend for medals in PyeongChang across the board, from the 10k freestyle to the 4x5k relay to the team sprint.
It was a far cry from Diggins’ first Olympics in Sochi, where she “came in as a nobody” and flew under the radar. In South Korea, the pressure was on.
“It for sure added a ton of stress for me,” she admitted. “Everyone was asking, ‘Are you going to win a medal? Are you going to win a medal?’”
But Diggins placed fifth in the 10k freestyle and the Americans finished fifth in the relay.
Diggins and Randall’s team sprint would be the last realistic chance at a medal.
Salmela, who has served as an analyst for NBC since the 2006 Winter Olympics, knew it might happen when the duo qualified for the finals ahead of Sweden in the semifinals.
“All things considered, I was like, ‘OK, these guys should win,’” he remembered thinking. “Still an unprecedented concept. Even as it was happening, it felt a little surreal.”
On the second lap, Diggins pushed the pace, separating from the pack and narrowing the field to three — the U.S., Norway and Sweden. Barring a catastrophe, a medal was certain. Randall kept even with the lead pack heading into the final exchange, setting up Diggins with a chance to win.
She was up against Nilsson and Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla, both world class sprinters. She figured her best shot would be to take the lead and make them spend energy catching up, then drop back into third right before the final downhill, where she could use the draft to pass them.
Hansen had seen Diggins win races in this position before. So when Diggins rounded the final curve about even with Nilsson and Falla, she knew Diggins had it.
“I saw her do it when she was racing in high school when she was 14 years old, when she was in junior national races at 16 years old. I’ve seen her do it multiple times in international races,” Hansen said. “She is not someone who ever backs down from a sprint.”
Salmela, too, had seen this movie before. When Diggins was competing in her first junior nationals in 10th grade at Soldier Hallow in Salt Lake City, Salmela -- who is also the varsity cross country coach at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn., -- worked as a volunteer and was familiar with the course. He watched as Diggins was beaten in the quarterfinals despite leading going into the final downhill (she did qualify for the semifinals). Before her next race, he pulled her aside.
“At that point, when you were leading, you can never be leading there for the rest of the day,” Salmela told Diggins. “You have to be in second or third at that point going into the final stretch.”
She listened, easing back before letting loose in both the semifinals and the finals and won at her first junior nationals.
“That was pretty cool,” Salmela said.
Each course and race calls for a different strategy, but in PyeongChang, Diggins made the call based on experience.
“Psychologically, it’s easier to be the one overtaking than to feel someone creeping up on you,” Diggins said. “I had a split second to decide this, but I’ve done enough races where I go, ‘Yup, that’s the plan,’ and commit to it.”
So she eased up on the uphill. Heading into the stadium on the downhill, she passed Falla with ease. Then, it was a dead-on sprint with Nilsson for the gold.
“She had the ability to take the lead on the big climb, but she was smart,” Randall said. “She realized it was better to save energy and go in the stadium. She wasn’t intimated about being against the Olympic champion in sprinting. She can dig deeper than anyone I know.”
Diggins beat Nilsson by 0.19 seconds, and it was her split-second call that made the difference.
“Nine times out 10, all things considered, Jessie Diggins would’ve been outsprinted by Stinna Nilsson in the final 100,” Salmela said. “But the way the race played out, by Diggins forcing the pace early, it gave Diggins the advantage to really blow by Nilsson to win.”
Diggins knew, out of the corner of her eye, that she had it.
“I felt kind of numb, like ‘Did that really just happen?’” she said.
Back in Afton, Councilmember Stan Ross had gone to bed before the race (it was the middle of the night in the United States), and awoke to the results.
“The morning after she won, my phone was ringing like crazy,” he said, over the phone. “Text messages, emails. Everybody was so excited.”
Not many people got a full night’s sleep, according to Rebecca Nickerson, who owns Selma’s Ice Cream downtown. Locals agreed it was the best thing to ever happen to the small town of 3,000 people along the banks of Lake Saint Croix, 20 miles east of St. Paul.
“People were texting in the middle of the night, sending pictures, posting on Facebook,” Nickerson said in a phone interview. “Everybody knew how special it was.”
What made it more special was Diggins’ connection to a community that reverberates around winter sports and the Stillwater High School cross country ski team. She felt the support of the community growing up.
“Instead of getting annoyed with you, they’re rolling down their windows and cheering for you, telling you how fast you’re going on the downhills,” Diggins said. “It’s so fun because you feel like you really have the support of the community behind you.”
Every young skier in town knows Diggins, who trains with the high school team for a day each fall and sends good luck notes and texts.
“It’s a community that loves the outdoors, really values their children and loves winter time,” Hansen said. “All of those things come together to make Jessie a perfect pinnacle for everybody’s attention.”
The town will celebrate “Jessie Diggins Day” on May 12, which follows a parade in nearby Stillwater on April 14. As part of the celebration, Nickerson will introduce a special ice cream flavor for Diggins, and is currently taste-testing flavors and taking suggestions.
“We’ve had people email us out of nowhere,” Nickerson said.
Those who know her marvel at how easy it is to root for Diggins, who has exuded positivity and teamwork from day one.
“Everybody that knows her well, they all say the same thing,” said Councilmember Bill Palmquist in a phone conversation. “As great as an athlete as she is, she’s a super nice person.”
Hansen recalled a meet in Diggins’ sophomore year when Diggins finished two minutes ahead of the field. She crossed the finish line, and before her skis stopped moving, she opened up her bindings, jumped off her skis and turned around, ran back onto the course and cheered until all of her teammates had crossed the line.
“Some people think nobody can be that positive,” Hansen said. “But it’s not [fake]. She is excited and engaged.”
On the national team, Diggins is the energy bunny, or, as Randall puts it, their “glitter fairy.” Every race dating back to high school, Diggins puts glitter on her face as a way of reminding herself that this is fun. While waiting at the starting line, Diggins will bob her head back and forth, wave her arms in the air and look genuinely excited to race, her ponytail bouncing up and down, the glitter sparkling on her cheeks.
“Just because I’m sparkly doesn’t mean I can’t have a really gritty, gutsy race,” said Diggins, who also glitters up her teammates before every race. “I definitely know how to suffer. The glitter is the balance to that.”
There’s a lot that goes into becoming a top class cross country skier -- the grueling workouts in remote locations, the four and a half months a year away from family training and participating in events -- and Diggins’ infectious energy and positivity helps the team endure through the highs and lows.
“For me, the team cheerleader role came very naturally,” she said. “It makes me feel good to encourage my teammates, to feel like I can pump people up and get them excited.”
After Diggins crossed the finish line in the team sprint, she went over to the rest of her teammates, who were waiting on the other side of the fence. There was Sadie Bjornsen, who was a year older than Diggins and rose up the ranks from world juniors to the national team with her. Bjornsen had been passed over for a spot in the team sprint, a hard decision that left her disappointed. Diggins went up to Bjornsen, gave her a hug and said, “I believe in you.”
“To have support and encouragement for a teammate right after she wins a gold medal shows immensely how powerful the team is and what kind of person she is,” Bjornsen said over the phone.
A bright future
The leap to superstardom can happen fast. In Sochi, Diggins was anonymous. Now, she’s one of the faces of her sport.
“The word ‘potential’ for Jessie is gone now,” Salmela said. “She has arrived at the top of the sport. Norwegians, Finns, Swedes -- they all love her. She now transcends American skiing and just becomes an icon in skiing. There’s really not been a non-European, non-Russian skier like Jessie Diggins, ever.”
Diggins is aware of the additional pressure and stress that might come, and will try to not let results affect her love for skiing. But of course, she sees the positive side, too. She wants to be a role model for young skiers, to pay it forward for the next generation.
“If there’s a girl who’s going, ‘I don’t know if I’m fast enough, maybe I should quit,’ -- if I can, in any way, help motivate them to stick with them and keep being in sports because they love it, that’s such a cool feeling,” Diggins said.
Her biggest dream is to race in a World Cup in her home state of Minnesota, and hopes her success will raise enough interest to make it happen. She already made an impression in PyeongChang, being selected by her fellow athletes as the flag bearer for the United States in the Closing Ceremony.
“I think I just said, ‘What? There must’ve been a mistake. Nobody would vote for a cross country skier,’” she recalled.
Diggins won over hearts and minds in PyeongChang, and put United States cross-country skiing on the map.
And she’s just getting started. Weeks after the Olympics, Diggins flew to Europe to wrap up her World Cup events and finished second overall. It put an exclamation mark on the best season for any American in 36 years.
Diggins is hitting her prime with many more years ahead of her, and her talent is dwarfed only by how much she enjoys the sport. At 26, she is young in both her age and in her heart, and truly loves the experience.
“That’s a quality that is going to bring her really far in this sport,” Bjornsen said. “It’s difficult what we do. She’s amazing in that she loves every second of it. I think that’s why she pushes herself so hard is because she’s so committed. I’m sure she will become a legacy of our sport. She has a lot more to accomplish.”