In a way, Jessie Diggins wishes she had won the World Cup overall title in a more normal year. She knows some people will attach an asterisk to her historic achievement, given that cross-country skiing powers Norway, Sweden and Finland sat out several races because of COVID-19.
But the pandemic added its own unique challenges. Diggins overcame lockdowns, isolation, schedule changes and training limitations to become the first American woman to win the overall cross-country title. The Afton native joins Bill Koch, the men's champion in 1982, as the only U.S. skiers to claim World Cup overall championships in the sport.
When the season began last November, Diggins just hoped the races would go on. The schedule ends this weekend in Engadin, Switzerland, with Diggins vying for a second crystal globe as the distance champion — ensuring a memorable conclusion to this one-of-a-kind season.
"The overall World Cup globe is the biggest thing I could ever possibly achieve,'' Diggins said Thursday in a video conference from Engadin. " … It's really cool in a year that's been challenging for everyone. There have been a lot of things that have been just struggles. To have something so positive to focus on, to be inspired by the quest of achieving this, it's really cool.''
With two races remaining — a 10-kilometer classic mass start and 30K freestyle pursuit — Diggins holds a 62-point lead over Sweden's Ebba Andersson for the distance title. She has an insurmountable 342-point cushion in the overall standings, ahead of Yulia Stupak of Russia.
Diggins has a career-high eight podium finishes and three World Cup victories this season. She called it a team effort, praising the coaches, wax technicians, physical therapists and others who support the American athletes through four months of racing in Europe.
Superb team chemistry helped, too, during a season when athletes could go nowhere other than their hotels and venues, and no family members or friends were allowed to visit. Her teammates kept Diggins' spirits high as she became the first American to win the Tour de Ski, a grueling multistage event, in January. As she took the lead in the overall standings, she got support from home, too, in messages from COVID-weary people cheering her on.
"Everyone back home is looking for things to be inspired by and be happy about,'' Diggins said. "To know that this year we've been able to inspire so many people to get outside and be active and to be excited about something, that's been really cool. In that way, I would say it's been much more meaningful to win during the pandemic.''
Norway, Sweden and Finland withdrew from December's World Cup races because of COVID-19 concerns, and the Norwegians also sat out the Tour de Ski. Diggins said it was "meaningless to go down that rabbit hole'' of whether their presence would have changed anything. One of her biggest victories of the season came against a loaded field, when she defeated Norwegian superstar Therese Johaug in a 10k freestyle in January.
Diggins noted she doesn't have any control over who shows up for races, just as she had no control over the warm weather and equipment problems that bedeviled her at the world championships in Germany. She didn't get the results she wanted, topping out with a pair of fourth-place finishes.
Still, she considered it a success. Diggins said she prepared as well as possible, peaked at the proper time and came out of every race feeling she had given maximum effort. This year, she did those things more consistently over a wide variety of races, which set her up well for the 2022 Olympic year — and brought the biggest prize of her career.
"It's cool to be the first to do something, to say, 'Yes, this is possible,' '' she said. "I'm going to remember this as a season where, more than any other, I was on every start line ready to give it my all.''