February 9, 2018, might seem like a long way off, but Afton native Jessie Diggins is looking forward to that date with laser-like focus. It’s the opening day of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, where—barring some unforeseen event—the Stillwater High School grad will compete as a member of the U.S. Nordic skiing team.
Diggins’s skis have carried her from the St. Croix Valley, where she first practiced sidesteps and herringbones at age 4, to the international Nordic circuit. A year ago the 25-year-old won her first solo World Cup victory in a women’s 5K freestyle race as part of the Tour de Ski in Toblach, Italy. It was her third gold medal in a major international competition; she became only the fourth American woman to win a World Cup individual event.
Diggins considers herself lucky to have grown up in a family that “loves the outdoors and being active in all seasons,” she says; on skis before she could walk, she also rode in her dad’s backpack, pulling his hair and calling “mush!” as her parents pushed along in their cross-country skis every winter weekend.
Diggins’s mother, Deb, says her daughter first showed skiing talent at around age 11, when she began competing against high school kids and placing well. Then she qualified for the state high school meet as a seventh-grader. “It became evident she had a combination of talent and drive,” her mom says with pride.
“The St. Croix Valley is an incredible area for cross-country skiing,” Deb Diggins says. “We have a very large cross-country community, and a lot of adults who were outstanding skiers in their own right, spending a lot of time volunteering to teach kids.”
Along with her parents, Diggins says her “high school coach, great friend, role model and training buddy” Kris Hansen was instrumental in her development as a skier. In fact, they still ski together the two times a year she makes it back to Afton. “She was an incredible mentor, friend and coach,” Deb Diggins says of Hansen, “always looking for ways to make things fun about the people, not just results, and lots of focus on technique.”
A Snow-bright Future
Through this strong support group, Jessie Diggins went on to win three state titles at Stillwater, and also earned an academic scholarship to Northern Michigan University. She deferred her enrollment for a year and accepted a position with the U.S. Ski Team’s junior national program. Diggins wound up winning nine junior national titles, and put college on the back burner, eventually joining the U.S. national cross-country ski team in spring 2011.
Diggins’s biggest achievement so far came in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where she finished eighth in the 15K skiathlon event, tying the best-ever distance result for a U.S. female cross-country skier in the Olympics.
Among her skiing success, personal highlights include: the sprint relay at 2013 World Championships, when she and Kikkan Randall teamed up to become the first female U.S. world champions; and the 10K skate race in the 2015 World Championships, where she became the first U.S. woman to medal in a distance event, finishing second.
Individual achievements are nice, but Diggins’s fondest dream for the 2018 Olympics would be “to anchor our four-by-5K team to a relay medal,” she says. “That would be the absolute highlight, because to medal in a relay shows that your country has depth, and [sharing that experience would be special] because I’m so close to my teammates.”
Seasonal Sport, Annual Aerobics
For Diggins, each season begins in November when she leaves to race on the World Cup circuit; she’s usually on the road for four months, finishing in mid-March. Her training season begins each May, and she trains all spring, summer and fall. It’s only in April when “I get to finally let my body rest,” she quips. In between competing and training, she returns to Afton each year for short visits in the spring and fall.
Diggins’s major sponsor on the tour is Little Canada, Minn.-based Slumberland Inc., where her father, Clay, is executive director of sales. She says her skiing success “wouldn’t be possible without the support from my sponsors and the community [in Minnesota].”
Her favorite type of event is individual-start distance races, “because it’s just you and the course, and no games or tactics with other skiers … just skiing your heart out,” she says. But Diggins believes she is best at skate sprints, 5K and 10K skate races.” As her career continues, Diggins expects to keep getting faster, since skiers tend to peak in their late 20s and early 30s.
Along with the skiing victories, Diggins has made some lifetime memories. She’s visited more than 15 countries and had “some awesome experiences,” such as meeting the president of Finland at the Lahti World Cup, where “he was cheering at the races and wanted to congratulate me on my sprint race, because he was so excited to see an American on the podium,” she says.
She also remembers enjoying the spectacle of rug dealers haggling in Turkey, where she raced the Under-23 World Championships a few years ago. And, “I’ve always loved seeing how crazy the fans are, camping in the woods on the side of the ski trails, in Norway and Sweden,” she says.
Deb and Clay Diggins have made a few memorable European trips to watch their daughter compete as well. They attended the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, and in 2014 spent the Christmas holidays in Switzerland, where they watched the final World Cup race.
Deb Diggins is proud of the fact that her daughter “tries her best at everything she does, doesn’t do things halfway,” she says. “Jessie put in a lot of work to get where she is. It’s been fun to see that pay off.”
Nordic vs. Alpine?
Here are a few differences between Nordic (cross-country) and Alpine (downhill) skiing.
• Nordic skis come to a point at the end, while Alpines are round-ended to aid in cornering control.
• Nordic skis are slightly curved upward, made for optimal flat- or medium-grade rolling hills.
• Alpine skis, due to their flat construction, can be very speedy.
• Alpine skiing is the younger of the two disciplines; Nordic skiing has been used as a form of transportation for centuries in snow-covered countries, while Alpine skiing gained popularity mostly since the installation of mountain ski lifts first in Europe then around the world.
• The use of wax on Nordic versus Alpine skis varies greatly.
Source: Cross-country Skiing 101 by Tony Goodwin