All she ever wanted to do was ski fast. No wonder, then, that Jessie Diggins is finding it so hard to slow down.
Ever since that charmed night one year ago in Pyeongchang, South Korea — when the Afton native won America’s first-ever Olympic gold in cross-country skiing — she has raced from one thing to the next. She’s used her new platform to educate people about eating disorders and climate change, and to bring a World Cup race to Minneapolis next year. In one 50-day period last spring, she appeared at 25 events.
“I’ve packed in about three years of stuff since the Olympics,” Diggins said earlier this month from Seefeld, Austria, where the world championships are in the midst of an 11-day run. “The moment the team sprint was over, everything started moving in fast-forward. And it just hasn’t stopped.”
Diggins said it seems like a lifetime ago when she thrust her ski over the finish line and collapsed, sealing gold in the Olympic team sprint for her and teammate Kikkan Randall. Currently fifth in the World Cup overall standings, Diggins, 27, said it has been “a year of learning” as she figures out how to pace herself off the snow as well as on.
It’s a tricky balancing act, especially following a season that included an Olympic title and a second-place finish in the overall World Cup standings. That has brought higher expectations, more attention and more pressure to perform.
With a goal of peaking for the world championships, Diggins got her first win of the season on Feb. 16 in a freestyle sprint in Cogne, Italy. She fell short of the podium in her first race at worlds, finishing eighth in Thursday’s freestyle sprint, but she is expected to ski in three more events. While her aim is to add to her career haul of four world championship medals, Diggins will judge herself the same way she always has.
“My expectations have shifted over the years,” said Diggins, who has four top-three World Cup finishes since Dec. 29. “It’s hard not to keep moving your bar higher and higher.
“But I still go out there every single time and race my heart out. And at the end, I still decide whether it was a good race before I look at the result sheet. Did I do everything I could? Did I meet my goals? That hasn’t changed at all.”
Diggins draws crowds wherever she goes, but some moments underscore the scope of her new celebrity. Last November, at The Emily Program’s 25th anniversary celebration, she got top billing over another guest: Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Klobuchar was as starstruck as everyone else. She told the crowd at the Twin Cities-based treatment center, which once helped Diggins overcome an eating disorder, about how she got to hold the Olympic gold medal when Diggins visited Washington last spring. Klobuchar also noted that her husband, John Bessler, rarely accompanies her to official events — but he eagerly came along when he heard Diggins was speaking.
“This is a first,” the future presidential candidate said, beaming at Diggins. “I get to follow a gold medal winner.”
The Emily Program event was part of a packed schedule during a two-week visit to the Twin Cities last fall, before Diggins left for the World Cup season in Europe. She put on some clinics, attended a fundraiser and took her parents to a screening of “Face of Winter,” a film featuring Diggins and her U.S. teammates.
All the while, she continued her six-days-per-week training regimen. Diggins estimated she spends 800 hours roller skiing, lifting weights, running and doing yoga during her offseason. Requests for her time went from 50 or so to “multiple hundreds” after the Olympics, and she allows herself only one month off each year, April.
Coach Jason Cork said Diggins’ fame is good for her and the sport but there was a limit to how much she could take on.
“Everyone wants her to come to their club and ski with their juniors, or cut the ribbon on the new trail,” said Cork, who has coached Diggins since 2010. “They’re all things she would love to do. But when you get 15 requests this week, and next week, and next week, it adds up.”
Diggins admitted she has a hard time saying no. She’s acutely aware of how the gold medal has amplified her voice and her influence, giving her a wide audience to promote causes dear to her.
Her choices often hinge on what will have the largest impact on the most people. Last spring, she bared her skin and her soul for ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue to bring attention to eating disorders. Diggins revealed she suffered from bulimia as a teen; checking into The Emily Program, she said, saved her life.
At the November event, a packed room sat silently as Diggins told her story. In addition to giving them a model of recovery and triumph, she has placed The Emily Program’s logo on the front of her ski cap this season, generating worldwide exposure for the center.
“More people are talking about eating disorders, because she’s been willing to do it,” said Dr. Jillian Lampert, chief strategy officer for The Emily Program. “That visibility, that conversation, is really important. Jessie is showing millions of people you can get well.”
An ambassador for her sport
The Olympic gold medal gave Diggins a shot of confidence heading into this season. Knowing she can win on her sport’s biggest stage has been helpful, she said, though that success has another side as well.
“After last year, there’s a lot of pressure,” Cork said. “The expectation is that if you finished second in the World Cup standings last year, then you’ll just go win it this year. It’s never that easy.”
Diggins has felt the weight of those expectations. She’s learning to view it as a net positive; even when it’s coming from internet critics, it demonstrates that more people are aware of cross-country ski racing. “I guess that’s how we know we’ve made it as a mainstream sport,” she said, laughing. “We get fired-up people commenting online.”
That wider awareness is paying dividends. Diggins has been lobbying for years to bring a World Cup race to the Twin Cities, and her medal helped generate the necessary corporate and citizen support. That event, scheduled for March 2020 at Wirth Park in Minneapolis, could help the sport make further inroads in the U.S.
There has been a trickle-down effect, too, for athletes like Alayna Sonnesyn of Plymouth. Sonnesyn, who won a SuperTour event earlier this month at Wirth Park, has seen other skiers get more attention since Diggins’ victory.
“Her winning put us on the map,” Sonnesyn said. “It’s nice to feel that support from the community, now that they know what we do.”
Since the first of the year, Cork said, Diggins’ results have begun to ramp up. Her world championships schedule includes Sunday’s team sprint, Thursday’s relay and next Sunday’s 30-kilometer freestyle.
It promises to be another busy offseason, too, for an athlete unaccustomed to letting up on the gas.
“It’s been a crazy year,” Diggins said. “It’s been a whirlwind, and a learning process. But I love that I’m getting the chance to give back and inspire people.’’