Ever humble, Jessie Diggins looks forward, not back, after 2018 gold

U.S. cross-country skier is always willing to put her teammates first

Jessie Diggins celebrates winning a cross-country ski sprint race at the Tour de Ski on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021, in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
Peter Schneider/Keystone via AP

Chad Salmela’s call during the television broadcast at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang will forever go down as one of the greatest in U.S. Ski & Snowboard history. With fellow Minnesotan Jessie Diggins approaching the finish in the women’s team sprint, Salmela’s scream of “Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins!” was followed seconds later by Diggins eking out the historic win.

Diggins, along with teammate Kikkan Randall, took home the first Olympic gold medal in the history of U.S. cross-country skiing — men or women — with only Bill Koch’s silver from 1976 also making the country’s Olympic trophy case in the sport.

That gold medal? Well, it’s a distant memory for Diggins these days. With the 2022 Winter Olympics only weeks away, she is about proving herself to the world all over again.

“My Olympic gold medal is in my parents’ basement. I don’t ever look at it, because every single day I have to earn the right to go to bed proud of who I am, how I am as a teammate, and what I’ve done that day, every single day,” Diggins said during a preseason video call with reporters from Finland. “It’s kind of cool that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you’ve done. You have to earn your place on the team. You have to earn every race start and you have to prove that you are in the right shape to be there. I love that about our sport. Nobody gets a free pass.”

Diggins, who turned 30 in August, doesn’t need a free pass. The 2018 Olympics in South Korea made her a superstar in the sport, and she has continued to prove she belongs.

Fresh off winning the overall World Cup title last winter — also a first for U.S. cross-country skiing — Diggins is off to a solid start this season. She was second in a freestyle sprint on Dec. 3 in Lillehammer, Norway; second in a 10-kilometer freestyle on Dec. 12 in Davos, Switzerland; and on Tuesday won the first stage of the Tour de Ski in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, among other strong results.

“That’s what is so cool about this sport, is I’m never going to be done. I’m never going to hit a point in my career where I’m, ‘Ah, nailed it, got it all done,'” Diggins said. “Last year, the focus did shift to going after the overall after we realized there was a possibility. This year the focus is most definitely mostly on the Olympics.”

While U.S. Ski & Snowboard won’t announce its 2022 Olympic teams for another few weeks, there is no doubt Diggins will head to Beijing. She’s currently third in the overall World Cup standings after Wednesday’s Tour de Ski stage — veteran teammate Rosie Brennan is fifth despite sitting out Tour de Ski — and third in the sprint standings.

Jessie Diggins competes during the women's 10 km classic race on Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, at the Tour de Ski in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
Peter Schneider/Keystone via AP

The Beijing Games, which start Feb. 4, will be different for Diggins in that she’ll have a much bigger target on her back compared to Pyeongchang. She’ll also be without Randall, her Alaskan mentor who has since retired from competition.

And all this is just fine for Diggins, who also competed in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and knows what is in front of her.

“When I was young going into my first Olympics, there were people who absorbed that pressure for me so I didn’t have to feel it. And that person especially was Kikkan. She really took a lot of the bullets for the whole team so that we didn’t have to,” Diggins said. “If there is a lot of pressure, that’s OK, because I’ve been around for a long time now and I do know how to take care of myself. I’m a big girl. Maybe it means that someone else can go into their first Olympics and have fun and not feel like there are so many eyes on them. In that way I hope I can be a good teammate.”

Among those first-time Olympians this winter will likely be Basalt’s Hailey Swirbul, who has quietly established herself as one of the team’s top skiers behind Diggins and Brennan. Swirbul is part of a young crew of fresh 20-somethings following in the historic wake of that 2018 gold medal won by Diggins and Randall.

And this, more than anything, is maybe what makes Diggins stand out. That gold medal was never about her, but about her team, her teammates and her country.

“Jessie could win 15 Olympic medals on a team by herself and she would not enjoy it,” said Matt Whitcomb, the head coach for U.S. cross-country skiing. “She enjoys it because of the team that surrounds her. In a lot of ways, it was fun to see Jessie have so much success, but in terms of the dynamic on the team thing, it didn’t really change. She stayed true to her personality.”

Minnesota’s Jessie Diggins
Courtesy of U.S. Ski & Snowboard

Since the 2018 Games, a lot has happened for Diggins. She is now engaged — and was happy to flash her ring to the reporters on Zoom — and even co-authored a book, called “Brave Enough,” chronicling her journey through the sport and including her battles with an eating disorder.

The only blemish in her historic World Cup season last winter was missing the podium at the 2021 world championships in Germany — she twice finished fourth — but hasn’t second-guessed herself or felt she didn’t prepare as she could have.

Diggins’ approach to the Olympics in February will be the same as nearly every other contest she’s competed in recently. She’ll put her teammates first and give it everything she has, which as she puts it is all anyone can really do.

“This is probably not going to come as a surprise, but the team events always draw my eye at the Olympics because there is something so glorious about having the whole team come together and have everyone put the pieces together at the same time on the same day. It means so much,” Diggins said. “Heading into Beijing, if there is anything I have learned from the last world championships is there will be elements outside of your control. There will be surprises and there will be disappointments. It is a roller coaster and that’s the amazing thing about sports.”