LAKE ELMO — All the hard work and training Jessie Diggins has endured over the years did not completely prepare her for success — the celebration part of it, anyway.
The Afton native made history this winter while joining Kikkan Randall to become the first Americans to capture gold in a World Cup team event. They followed that up with Team USA’s first-ever World Championship victory in the team sprint in February. Those historic achievements provided another learning experience for the 21-year old.
“After the World Cup, the race organizers brought a bottle of champagne for each athlete on the podium and you’re supposed to shake it up, pop the cork and spray your competitors,” Diggins said. “The men were really good at it and most of the girls were pretty good at it, but I had never opened a bottle of champagne before so I had no idea how to open it. It was kind of embarrassing. We had lessons afterward.”
There were no such complications on Friday evening as Diggins shared stories and recapped the previous six months of travel and competition with the many friends, coaches, family members and other supporters who attended the welcome-home celebration at the Lake Elmo Park Reserve Chalet.
“That was really incredible to see so many people, all of whom are involved in Nordic in some way,” said Diggins, who burned through at least three pens while signing posters for those in attendance. “To see all my friends there was overwhelming, in the best way, and to see all these people that coached you when you were little. Getting to celebrate a really big goal and celebrating with people who mean so much to you, I was really pleased to see everyone there.”
It was also a nice way to begin a month-long visit home after visiting 10 countries and competing in 39 races over the past five months.
As the youngest member of Team USA, Diggins is pushing for more after finishing 36th in the 2013 World Cup rankings. With the Olympics in Russia less than a year away, she is optimistic more American firsts are on the horizon.
“Yeah, it’s definitely a cool feeling to have a historic race,” Diggins said. “Now, just raise the bar a little bit and I know it’s going to be raised even further. Maybe it will take a little while, but I know we’re going to keep raising the level of skiing higher and higher. It’s cool that we’re starting this.”
Each spring she sets goals for the following year, and the Olympics figure heavily in this year’s aspirations.
“The most important goals are the process goals and when you accomplish those, that’s what gets you result goals,” Diggins said. “I want to get a relay on the podium and top 15 for an individual race. Those are two of my goals.”
Less than three years ago Diggins graduated from Stillwater Area High School as a three-time individual state champion and nine-time junior national champion. She has since added five U.S. national championships to that list. But while her friends and classmates were deciding on colleges and contemplating career paths, the sequence for those decisions was different for the top young skier in the country.
“Especially in the U.S., it’s expected that you graduate from high school and go to college and my thinking was that’s great everybody is doing that, although it’s not the path for everybody,” Diggins said.
“The daunting part is that everybody I knew was taking the ‘I’m going to go to college and get a degree and get a job’ route. For me, it was, ‘I’m not going to college, then retire (from competing) and then go to college and get a job.’ It’s a path that’s not regularly taken, but I believed that this was going to be so much fun that there was never a doubt. But it was daunting, for sure.”
Of course, perception doesn’t always match reality when it comes to the rigors of living out of a suitcase while traveling and competing around the world. Diggins spent six hours in an airport this past Christmas Eve, and during a 10-day stay in Italy she got sick and was moved to eight different rooms before checking out — so frequently, in fact, her coaches could not find her.
“There’s a couple of misconceptions. One is that when traveling we’re on this glamorous vacation,” Diggins said. “We are traveling to one city and one country to the next, but it’s definitely not a vacation in the sense that you get to go sightseeing and touring around. You’re testing skis, preparing and training and resting. Often times I’m leaving a city and saying I want to come back when I’m not racing. You get a little taste of every country, but people often think, ‘Oh you went to France,’ but we never got to see the Eiffel Tower.”
She has made more progress with her skiing than learning a foreign language, and her limited Spanish helps little in most of Europe and Scandinavia.
“We can say thank you in maybe 10 different languages, but that’s usually all I remember,” Diggins said. “I made attempts to start learning other languages, but the problem is when constantly on the move you never get to practice one language.”
Prospects have never been higher for Team USA, but it doesn’t happen by accident, and when you spend much of the year traveling and training in close quarters with the same people it’s important that everyone gets along.
“I think it’s critical that everybody on the team is committed to being a good teammate,” Diggins said. “I had a coach tell me, ‘I don’t care as much about what result you get because I know you’re going to try hard. The only way you can fail is not being a good teammate.
“We’re so lucky that nobody on the team is a prima donna and everybody is committed to team goals and creating a positive atmosphere. We’re so lucky — because you can’t pick your teammates — you just have to hope they’re awesome, and they are.”
Diggins is focused on her own training but also committed to inspiring youngsters to work hard and follow their dreams. In addition to providing regular updates about life on the road with her blog (jessiediggins.com), she also contributes regular entries aimed at younger skiers on the website for the Minnesota Youth Ski League (www.mysl.org/jessie-diggins), a group she started skiing with at the age of 3, and conducts youth clinics when time allows.
The rising star embraces those opportunities to inspire others.
“I really like getting to meet new people and it’s important to meet these kids who want to make the U.S. Ski Team or the Olympics. It’s inspiring to meet kids who are not afraid to have these big goals and say it,” Diggins said.
“It took me a while to really start thinking that I am a role model. The Nordic community is much smaller than basketball or football, but to kids that ski, if I am a role model, I want to make sure my actions are those of a good role model. It’s good to realize the role that you’re in and I’m thankful to be in that place where I can hopefully inspire some young athletes to stick with the sport and be living this healthy lifestyle.”
Contact Stuart Groskreutz at email@example.com