A little more than four years ago, a group of women clad in all black race suits and bib 3 huddled in an athlete warming room. The muffled voice of an announcer speaking in Swedish could be heard broadcasting outside, an English translation relaying the same message: 10 minutes to start.
The quartet departed the building, four blondes — one highlighted pink — headed for the start gate. A pass through a patch of sunlight revealed a second similarity. Cheeks swiped in sparkles, artwork courtesy of the then and now, youngest U.S. Ski Team (USST) A-team member, Jessie Diggins.
Diggins would go on to anchor the team in what became a historic cross-country World Cup relay for the U.S. — it was the first time an American women’s team reached the podium, with the group finishing in third overall.
It could be said that the game-face glitter and a give-it-all relay leg performance from Diggins was the kickstarter of her World Cup career.
For the next few years, team races such as the above, would become some of the Afton, Minn., native’s favorite, and arguably, better performances. Her first individual podium came almost exactly a year ago at the 2015/2016 Tour de Ski.
“For years, I would pull out these awesome performances on relay day and I was like, ‘Oh my God, where did that come from?’ ” Diggins said during a phone conversation in November.
Now, at 25 years old, Diggins has reached the World Cup podium 13 times. Of the eight individual podiums, six occurred last season. The other two more recent: her win in the 5 k freestyle race last month and her second place finish in Tuesday’s Stage 3 skiathlon in Obsterdorf, Germany.
With close to five years of World Cup racing now under her belt, Diggins explained that while her love for team racing and facepaint has not changed, her mental approach toward individual races has. Part of the difference stemmed from her discovery that her individual effort is no less important than the one she puts forth for the team.
“I finally realized it’s OK to race that hard in an individual race, too,” she said. “Like that doesn’t make me a bad person for wanting to do it for myself and for my hometown and for all the people cheering for me.”
That said, Diggins is not bent on lining up and looking for the win at the start of every ski race this season. Her focus, as she indicated, will be where it matters: the Tour de Ski — which she currently ranks fifth in — and 2017 World Championships in Lahti, Finland.
“You’re not going to be able to race to the point of being barely conscious 40 times,” Diggins said, predicting that, if this season matches last year’s competition count, she’ll probably tackle close to 40 ski races. “I’m going to get ready for the big races, like the tours, World Championships, the ones that are the most important to me.”
A firm believer in the role every individual plays within the team structure, Diggins described her part within the women’s USST as that of a “spark plug.” While some individuals show strength in race analytics, others psychological breakdown, hers comes as enthusiasm for the sport itself, which includes her signature sparkles.
“You know, everyone has very unique skills that they bring to the table and mine is energetic optimism,” Diggins said. “I’m kind of the cheerleader of the team, if you will, covered in glitter. My job is to make the team, get people excited about what we’re doing.”
Diggins does her job well. As an athlete ambassador for Fast and Female, once again aiding with the ‘dance and endurance’ station at this fall’s annual event in Park City, Utah, she acted as inspiration for more than 160 girls in attendance.
Her enthusiasm for the sport is also proactive. Before last season came to a close, she approached the Norwegian women’s head coach at the time, Egil Kristiansen, at the Ski Tour Canada, proposing the notion of her joining his Norwegian team for a summer training camp.
Three months after her conversation, Diggins received an email from Norway’s new women’s head coach, Roar Hjelmeset, listing training camps she could attend.
“If you want to be the best, why not go train with the best?” Diggins said of why she chose Norway.
With many of the Norwegian women a similar age as herself (to include some of Norway’s leading talent: Heidi Weng, Maiken Caspersen Falla and Ingvild Flugstad Østberg), and the potential of racing alongside these same athletes for the next few years, Diggins also saw an opportunity to create connections as more than just competitors.
“If you want to be the best, why not go train with the best?” — Jessie Diggins on spending a week training with the Norwegian national team
“Why not make good friends and have a coffee buddy in between races on the World Cup?” Diggins said. “I love making friends and learning more cultural things. It’s about more than just skiing, I guess, for me.”
Her time in Norway gave her more than just a few extra World Cup coffee buddies. She was also able to compare notes on Norway’s training strategies with those of the U.S. What she found was, surprisingly, there were no big secrets. Much of the training she did with the Norwegians mirrored work she’d done at camps on North American soil.
“The training we did over there in Norway was almost identical to what we did at our Bend camp,” Diggins said of the U.S. Ski Team’s annual spring camp. “We just need to believe in ourselves as a nation and know that eventually we will get there too.”
It wasn’t that her Norwegian counterparts were doing more intervals than what she was used to or even longer. What it did come down to, according to Diggins, was the complete conviction with which they approached their training plan, even if it meant doing less than others around them.
“They go into every workout with this awesome confidence, like what I’m doing today is the right thing for me and it’s going to make me faster and I’m going to kick ass,” Diggins said. “It’s just a really good mindset I really admire.
“It’s really hard because a lot of us are wired in that more, more, more, more is better,” she added. “It’s my job to train, so I’ll just train a ton. But it doesn’t always make you faster, unfortunately. Or else it be super easy and we’d all be winning World Cups.”
As she continues to become a regular podium contender and challenger of Norwegian names, Diggins proves that the trust she has placed in her training is not to be taken lightly. With another individual win added to her first one from last year, Diggins doesn’t doubt her ability do it for herself or her team.
“Last year was a big confidence boost,” she said. “Now [coming into this season], I know that I can do it, because I’ve done it before.”
We asked Diggins to give our ’17 Questions for 2017′ a go. Here are her responses:
1. Biggest change in your life in the last five or so months since the ski season ended?
Not a whole lot has changed! I’m still a ski bum living out of my suitcase, and the longest I’ve been in one place was 3 weeks in a row. I guess the biggest change is that I can now pack up my life in under an hour (yep, I clocked it).
2. Biggest change in your training?
I’m still slowly getting better at finding the line between training a lot and recovering from it before moving on, and paying a lot of attention to how I’m feeling day to day is something that’s helped me a lot over the past year.
3. Major areas of improvement you’ve seen so far?
Classic technique! I’ve been putting a lot of work into classic over the years and I’m finally feeling as comfortable striding as I am skating. I can’t believe I just wrote that.
4. Whom you’ve been working closest with this offseason (coaches or training partners)?
I work with a lot of people! Jason Cork has been my personal coach (and tech!) for a looooong time, and I also train and work with the USST coaches and athletes. I spend the summer bouncing between USST camps and living and training with my teammates at SMS and our SMS team coach, Pat. Basically, I love working with everyone. I even got a special trip to Norway to train with their National team girls, and I had such a great camp with them. I firmly believe that the more we can get together and help each other get better and faster, the better everyone will be!
5. Best trip in the last five months (and why)?
I have a serious thing for New Zealand. We had another amazing training camp there this August, and I love everything about that country! The training was amazing with 35km of groomed trails, the food was spectacular, the views were inspiring and the people were super friendly.
6. Favorite cross-training?
I like long adventure runs. Point to point, NOT out and back, please.
7. Favorite non-athletic activity or pastime this summer?
Spending time with my boyfriend in Boston, and my family in Minnesota! There are a lot of pretty amazing people in my life, and I like being around them as often as I can.
8. Song that was your jam this summer?
“Handclap” by Fitz and the Tantrums got me through my own set of glacier skiing tantrums 🙂
9. All-time favorite race moment?
OH man. There are so many! Every relay I’ve ever been a part of is a great memory for me…even the times we really blew it 🙂 But it’s a tie between the moment I crossed the finish line and barreled right into Sophie, Sadie and Liz’s arms in Nove Mesto, and when Kikkan and I won the World Champs team sprint relay. Those were days when the whole team was jumping up and down!
10. First thing you pack in your bag when you leave for Europe?
Glitter. Aeropress coffee maker. Peanut butter/Almond butter and American Gum (I swear, it’s different. And very important!). But the first thing is always glitter for race days
11. Venue/event you’re most excited to visit this season?
I am really excited to see the new one in Ulricehamn, Sweden. It’ll be fun to see a new place!
12. Who will win the men’s and women’s World Cup titles this year?
Your guess is as good as mine!
13. Biggest sacrifice you feel you’ve made choosing this career path?
Being far away from the people I love in my life. I’m a cuddly, got-to-be-with-you-there-in-person kind of person, and it’s hard to be gone so much. Thank goodness for Skype, but it’s not the same when you really need a hug from home.
14. If you could change one thing about your sport, what would it be?
Have more World Cups in North America, and finally bring some back to the US! Our sport is growing and it would be incredible to bring all the exciting action back home to keep the next generation of skiers fired up.
15. What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Oatmeal with berries, nuts, yogurt and local honey made by my friends at home! Lucky me.
16. In 5 years, I’ll be ____?
Still racing the World Cups, of course!
17. In 50 years, I’ll be ____?
Embarrassing my grandkids by dressing up, glittering my cheeks and skiing the Slumberland American Birkie.
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.