Jessie Diggins is making history and collecting gold as a member of the United States Ski Team at this week’s FIS Nordic Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
The Afton native and 2010 Stillwater Area High School graduate joined teammate Kikkan Randall to win the team sprint race on Sunday, marking the first-ever World Championship for Team USA in cross-country skiing.
Diggins, who at the age of 21 is the No. 2 ranked skier in the United States, also placed 23rd in the 10-kilometer freestyle race on Tuesday and contributed to another unprecedented finish for the Americans in the women’s relay on Thursday when they placed fourth, which was a five-place improvement from the World Championships in Oslo two years ago. Prior to Thursday, Team USA’s best-ever finish in a relay came in the men’s race at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Diggins skied the anchor (freestyle) leg in the relay and was unable to overtake the Russian team for the bronze, but passed Finland down the stretch to move Team USA from fifth to fourth.
“We hoped for a medal today, but fourth feels like a medal to me today,” said Liz Stephan, who tagged off to Diggins for the final leg of the relay. “Everyone skied their heart out today. Jessie could have easily decided that fifth was good enough, but on that last climb she decided ‘I’m getting fourth,’ and to me that’s a medal.”
But it was the earlier race this week that provided the most drama for Diggins and Team USA. Diggins and Randall each skied three legs of the sprint relay and remained near the lead throughout. Diggins started her third and final leg with a slim lead over Sweden and maintained that — but not without some equipment drama — before handing to Randall, who closed out an eight-second victory over Sweden and Finland.
“Anytime you’re sprinting with the best sprinter in the world, it’s like ‘alright!’ Because I knew that if I could get her to take off in a good position then she’d be able to hold it and improve upon it,” Diggins said of tagging off to Randall for the final leg. “So I just tried to get her in the best spot I could and I have absolute confidence in her.”
Getting to Randall provided a bigger obstacle for Diggins after a skier from Finland stepped on her pole near the top of a hill, leaving her with just one pole. There, one of the American coaches showed some speed while dashing to get Diggins a spare pole and the two executed a seamless transition and Diggins did not miss a beat.
“We both knew that if everything came together just right and we skied really good we had the chance of a medal, but it’s sprint racing, things happen,” Diggins said. “Your poles come off. People step on your poles. It all came together anyways and that’s a really cool feeling to be able to share with our whole team.”