Had the guest of honor been anyone else, Saturday’s parade in Stillwater might have been called off. A persistent snowfall, biting gusts from the north and a windchill dropping to single digits didn’t create the most hospitable environment for a ritual usually reserved for summer.
But as Jessie Diggins rolled down Main Street in the back of a white pickup, the Olympic gold medalist reveled in the snowflakes as if they were nature’s ticker tape. Perhaps that’s why winter hung around so long, to ensure a proper welcome for the cross-country skier’s first trip back to Minnesota since she made history at the Pyeongchang Olympics in February. A few hundred people turned out to greet the Afton native at Saturday morning’s parade, and about 500 more came to an afternoon event where Diggins shared stories and pictures from the Winter Games and a triumphant World Cup season.
On a four-day trip home, Diggins lobbied for her newest pursuit — bringing a World Cup cross-country race to Theodore Wirth Park in 2020--and thanked her local sponsors. Mostly, she basked in the love of a home state that prepared her for the Olympics in weather just like Saturday’s.
“This is the fun part of winning a gold medal, getting to share it and seeing how excited people are about it,” said Diggins, who paired with Kikkan Randall in the team sprint to win the first-ever U.S. Olympic gold in cross-country skiing. “I’ve had an absolutely packed schedule since I got home, which is great.
“Since Pyeongchang, it’s been an amazing whirlwind I could never have prepared for. I’m still getting used to it, but it’s really cool.”
Saturday’s parade carried Diggins through the streets of Stillwater in a motorcade of public-safety vehicles. She was accompanied, at her request, by the Stillwater Area High School girls’ teams that won state championships last winter in Nordic skiing, Alpine skiing and gymnastics.
Diggins and her fellow athletes waved and tossed candy to a crowd that included lots of kids, dogs, babies and adults unperturbed by the storm. Spectators wore toy gold medals and carried miniature American flags. The bravest among them ate free ice cream given out at Lowell Park, where all of the honorees gave speeches and received city proclamations.
It was a more quaint reception than Diggins received during a three-day, post-Olympic media tour in New York City. She and Randall appeared on TV morning shows, visited the New York Stock Exchange and saw the play “Hamilton,” where the cast asked them to bring their gold medals backstage and took photos like star-struck fans. Diggins especially relished an appearance on the NPR game show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,’’ which she listens to while traveling to races in Europe.
Afterward, Diggins returned to Europe to finish out the World Cup season with a roar. She was second in the season standings, only 40 points behind Norway’s Heidi Weng, and earned seven top-three finishes in the best season by an American cross-country skier in 36 years.
Agent Patrick Quinn said the Olympics opened up “a whole new world” for Diggins in terms of endorsements and sponsorships. Her speaking fee has risen from $2,500 before the gold medal to $30,000 after. He is receiving at least one or two appearance requests every day, and she just signed an endorsement deal with a jewelry company.
“It’s completely different for her, like night and day,” Quinn said. “She had 14 different sponsors going into the Games. Now that escalates to a whole new level.”
Diggins’ star power also dazzled politicians and business leaders in the Twin Cities, as she made the case for bringing a World Cup event to Minneapolis. Diggins is working with the Loppet Foundation and U.S. Ski & Snowboard to rally support for a race at Wirth Park during the 2019-2020 season.
The group is working on a tight timeline, with only a month to put a proposal together before submitting it to the International Ski Federation. Tom Webb, director of marketing and communications for U.S. Ski & Snowboard, said it will require $1.2 million to stage the event. A plan is in place to cover more than 50 percent of the cost, leaving local organizers to raise $400,000 to $600,000 to complete the funding.
Webb said the proposal has received “incredibly good feedback’’ from the Twin Cities business and donor community, with many attending a Thursday breakfast with Diggins to hear more about it. She also pressed her case last week at a tea with Gov. Mark Dayton, and during a visit to the State Capitol to be recognized by the Legislature.
The last World Cup cross-country event in the U.S. was in Utah in 2001. Webb said the success of Diggins and the rest of the U.S. women’s team makes Minneapolis a viable contender.
“It’s gaining real traction,” Webb said. “With all the attention Jessie has brought, and with Minneapolis being a hotbed of cross-country, it makes sense.”
Since the Olympics, Diggins said, she has been recognized by strangers on airplanes and passed her gold medal around to thousands of people. The attention she got last week was particularly meaningful. The Saturday afternoon celebration drew a standing-room crowd to an auditorium at the corporate headquarters of Slumberland, one of her local sponsors, where she presented a slide show recapping her season.
Her father, Clay, joked that he was changing the title on his business card to “Jessie’s Dad.’’ Then he showed why. When he introduced a video of Jessie’s Olympic gold-medal finish, it got a loud, prolonged ovation.
“I’ve always said, it takes a village,” Diggins said. “This is the place that raised me and the people who made me an Olympic champion. I’m so proud to say I’m from Minnesota.”