After her first World Cup in Drammen, Norway last winter, which immediately preceded World Championships, Jessie Diggins came to a realization about professional ski racing.
“I get it now — why people work so hard, train for so many years, push themselves right to the edge in races,” she wrote. From the tone of her writing, Diggins is clearly having a blast being a professional skier. Her enthusiasm for the sport is palpable; it’s as if she still can’t quite believe her luck in getting to do something she clearly loves every day of the week.
Of course, luck has nothing to do with her success. Only a year out of high school, Jessie Diggins earned a berth to World Championships and notched two individual top-30s at Holmenkollen last March. Just a few weeks prior in Estonia, she had skied to 7th in the 5 k skate at World Juniors—the best result for a US athlete at the event in five years.
No part of skiing is mundane for her, a fact that can’t be overlooked when searching for possible explanations for her rapid rise to the elite level. When asked if competing in Junior Nationals was a bit anticlimactic after getting a taste for the big stage in Oslo, Diggins explained that the Minneapolis races were just as important to her.
“I’ve got ridiculous amounts of Minnesota pride, so having JNs in Minneapolis was really cool,” said Diggins, who went to high school just outside the Twin Cities. “My family hadn’t been able to see me race all year, so having them there was really exciting.”
Her competitors were not to be envied: she swept all three individual OJ races that week, and came from behind to anchor the ladies’ Midwest relay team to victory. Diggins’ presence at the flagship junior event of year was notable not just for her dominance. How often does the average J1 have the opportunity to take notes for an entire week from one of the most talented, gritty and enthusiastic skiers in the US?
Last season was her first out of high school, and her decision to delay college and forgo NCAA eligibility wasn’t an easy one. In a conversation over the summer, she said, “I was nervous. What if I got injured? But I think it was well worth it…I think it made a huge difference for me, and I’m really pumped about the jumps I made.”
Named to the U.S. Ski Team (USST) B-Team this spring, Diggins was equally enthusiastic about upcoming winter, which is now well underway.
“I feel really lucky to be part of the team,” she said. “Being the youngest girl there I learn a lot…about how to be a professional athlete, and make it work training every day all year, and still have fun.”
Between skiing with the best North American women in Alaska this July and leading clinics for CXC in and around her hometown of Stillwater, MN, Diggins seems to be having no trouble having fun as she starts the next phase of her career. Based on her performances at the opening SuperTours in West Yellowstone, MT, fun seemed to equate directly to speed. She isn’t even aiming to peak until well after the New Year, as her main focus will be U23s and gaining experience on the World Cup after US Nationals. And yet she currently sits atop the overall SuperTour standings by 26 points.
“I’m still working on how to pace the longer races,” said Diggins after the 10 k in West Yellowstone. “I’m not so far out of high school where we just did 5 ks. This is good for me. It is a good learning experience every time.”
If she remains the points leader after the SuperTour in Bozeman, MT this weekend, she could jet off to Europe to begin her World Cup tour. But at this early stage in her career, Diggins understands what her strengths and weaknesses are, and is looking past the immediate season in making decisions that will best serve her development as an athlete. Regardless of how many points she has after December 4, she plans to remain in the US until January.
“I decided, you know, I’m 20 years old. I’m not ready for a whole season in Europe,” she said in the fall. “It’ll be good for me to start with what I’m comfortable with and work into [the season].”
But her European race schedule is a lengthier one than she’s ever dealt with before, and Diggins and her coaches realize they don’t quite know how she’ll handle it. So they’ve allowed for a certain degree of flexibility; she’ll join the USST in Italy directly after the last race in Rumford, ME and start off the World Cup in Period 2. If she races well there, she’ll continue racing the World Cup, but if she’s tired or stressed, she’ll ender OPA cups instead in the lead-up to U23s in Erzerum, Turkey, where she’s planning big things.
This will be Diggins’ first year in the higher age class, and she said she’s “super excited and nervous” for U23s. She’s been to three World Junior Championships already, which she feels has given her valuable experience with higher pressure races.
“I feel like now…I have a better handle on the stress,” she said. “Sometimes you can waste nervous energy.”
As for the racing, her goal is to follow up last winter’s top-10 at World Juniors with another one in Turkey, and to continue gaining confidence and experience skiing against the best skiers on the planet.
“The level of competition is super high,” she said. “You show up on the World Cup and race your hardest, and it’s all you can do to crack the top 30. It really opens your eyes.”
Though she may still be a wide-eyed rookie on the USST, her growing confidence in her ability to compete with the best skiers in the world is evident as her departure for Europe approaches.
“In a race you might get passed by these European skiers, and you might try to hold their pace,” she explained. “And every year after that you start to stick with them longer and longer.
“It’s really cool to see.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.