Less than a month into her first World Cup season, the Jessie Diggins story-line has become old news.
With a World Cup podium (in the Team Sprint) on her first weekend, and points in four of her first five individual races, Diggins has surpassed all reasonable expectations.
And now after following up a finals appearance in the Moscow city sprint (a race in which she qualified first) with a stunning fifth place finish in the 10k mass start in Rybinsk, Russia, Diggins has gone far beyond even unreasonable hopes.
Her young age (20 years), her appearance at Junior Nationals just under a year ago (yes, she won), and the fact she spent the first half of the season racing the SuperTour and NorAm circuit (dominant) have all been well documented at this point.
It may not be quite a classic rags-to-riches story of athletic accomplishment (her talent and work ethic have been known quantities for some time), but Diggins’ meteoric rise to the top has been one of the bright spots in an already glowing season for the US women’s team.
With Kikkan Randall, fourth in the overall World Cup standings, sitting out for the first time this season, who would have thought the US would still crack the top-5?
“We were very happily surprised the other day when she won the qualification in Moscow, and that was quite an achievement, and then for her to finish 6th overall on the day was another surprise,” US Ski Team (USST) Head Coach Chris Grover told FasterSkier. “This is even a bigger surprise…she’s obviously in good shape…she doesn’t know any limits right now, and that’s really exciting.”
Diggins, with a still-nascent World Cup ranking, started at bib 27 in today’s race, meaning she had plenty of work to do on the first of four 2.5k laps.
“There were people and poles and people going down all over the place,” Diggins said after her race. “I definitely had a pole to the face, and it was a little crazy.”
Showing the poise and confidence that have quickly become a hallmark of her first World Cup sojourn, Diggins focused on her work, staying out of trouble, and began “picking people off one by one, and just trying to catch one more person.”
While testing skis prior to the race, USST Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb reminded Diggins to just ski her race.
“[He] told me ‘after Moscow nothing has changed, you know, don’t feel any pressure, you don’t have to do anything,’ so I was like, alright, I’m just gonna go out there and just ski 10 kilometers just as fast as I can, and not worry about where I place,” Diggins said.
She moved up steadily in the pack, passing small groups of skiers in the spread-out field, not knowing where she stood until the last lap, when excited coaches made it clear that she on track for another exceptional finish.
On the last climb, she distanced herself from other chasers, and suddenly had a fading Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) in her sights.
Kowalczyk’s resume is well known, what with the three Tour de Ski titles, and consecutive overall World Cup Championships, and she entered today’s race having regained the yellow leader bib with a streak of five straight wins.
But like all sports, the past, even just a few days old, has no bearing on the present competition, and Diggins consumed Kowalczyk and Finn Riitta Liisa Roponen, leaving them to find their own way to the line.
“At the end my energy was still pretty good, pretty high…and it was just really cool, to realize that ‘oh my gosh this is Kowalczyk here in the yellow bib,” Diggins said. “This might be my one and only chance to ever get to pass her—I’d better do it even if I blow up.”
Diggins crossed the line just 26.3 seconds down on Bjørgen and less than seven seconds off the podium. She was able to execute her race plan of starting under control, though the challenges of a mass start made staying relaxed a little “forced.”
“I didn’t want to do something silly and get trampled on, or knocked down, so I just tried to be super chill in that first lap and I think it paid off,” Diggins said, adding that she was not bothered by the frigid temperatures.
“I’m one of the most temperature hearty people on the team. I just don’t get cold as easy for whatever reason, and maybe part of that is growing up in Minnesota,” Diggins said, reminiscing about high school races with numb hands where her approach was “whatever, I’ll deal with that later.”
The challenging Rybinsk course with two major climbs in each of the four laps would seem to suit Diggins, but Grover wasn’t willing to pigeonhole his newest star.
Grover described the course as great “for a big skating push,” noting that Diggins has “really really strong” legs.
But he said he saw her “working the downhill transitions, passing people on the downs but passing people on the ups too,” and at the end of the day he wasn’t “exactly sure what the best course for her is right now, but there’s a lot of them.”
These days it seems that most courses favor the US women. Along with Diggins, both Randall and Ida Sargent qualified for the semifinals in Moscow, and Liz Stephen cracked the top-30 yet again today.
Include Holly Brooks’ breakthrough early season and Sadie Bjornsen’s teaming with Randall for a podium in Dusseldorf, and you have a long list of historic accomplishments.
Stephen, a World Cup veteran at this point, has been nothing but impressed with what Diggins has brought to both the team and her racing.
“She is adding to this spinning wheel of momentum that has grabbed a hold of us this season and running with it,” Stephen wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “The best part about Jessie is that she puts on a bib, and it is game-on 100%. She just goes and goes and goes and doesn’t think twice about it.
It is Randall who leads the way of course, taking her distance skiing to a new level, and establishing herself as one of the best all-around skiers in the world. But in Rybinsk, she was on the sidelines, not even able to watch the race as the event was not televised locally.
She wasn’t surprised to see Diggins pick up the slack, telling FasterSkier “I had a feeling that it could go that well,” and that at this point nothing Diggins does will surprise her.
“It’s just great to see her skiing so well, and skiing with reckless abandon, and not being intimidated, just jump in and having fun,” Randall said.
On the subject of fun, Diggins has been enjoying every moment of a magical season.
“This whole year, I’ve just been having the time of my life… I have two different teams going on (CXC domestically and the USST internationally), but I love ‘em both and it’s been great to be able to spend so much time with each and get some really different experiences,” Diggins said.
She will have another opportunity to enjoy herself tomorrow in the 15km skiathlon, an event she has not contested since World Championships last March.
“It’s sometimes hard not to just keep raising the bar, because I’ve put more pressure on myself than anyone would ever expect of me,” Diggins said. “But if I ever feel overwhelmed, I’m like man, I’m the only person who expects to just keep moving up every race. I’m gonna have a bad race sooner or later, it’s coming, but maybe I can hold it off.”
Her plan, like today, is to “keep the first few laps chill, and see what happens.”
Audrey Mangan contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.