As January draws to a close, energy, excitement, and perhaps anxiety surrounding the rapidly approaching 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing is steadily building. In an effort to better manage her time and energy heading into these Games, Jessie Diggins offered a media conference facilitated by U.S. Ski & Snowboard cross country communications manager Tom Horrocks to answer questions about her preparation, outlook, and plans for the remainder of the time before the team heads to the athlete village in Zhangjiakou.
Diggins began the conference with a comment on the team that has been named. Of the fourteen athletes named to the Olympic cross country team, just four have competed in past Games. Diggins is headed into her third Olympics with ten total Olympic races under her belt, while Rosie Brennan, Caitlin Patterson, and Scott Patterson competed only in the 2018 Games. In Pyeongchang, Brennan competed in just the skiathlon, while Caitlin Patterson raced in the skiathlon and 30k classic, and Scott Patterson raced in each of the three individual distance events plus the men’s relay.
Six of the athletes were born in the year 2000 or 2001. Overall, it’s a relatively young crop of athletes, many of whom have very limited experience racing at the international senior level compared to veteran-dense teams like Norway.
Diggins emphasized that the age and experience of the team should not be associated with what fans of the sport should expect to see in competition, adding that she is individually very excited to see what her teammates will do at the Games.
“Everyone’s working so hard,” she said. “And staying really cool in what is a stressful time – with COVID, and with variants, and with all the different paperwork and all the things that you need to do headed into any Olympics, but especially this one, given the extra hurdles with COVID… I think everyone’s doing such a remarkable job of not only handling all the extra stressors very well, but also still being excited and still seeing this as, ‘Okay, we’re gonna find ways to make this fun. Obviously, it will be different from Games in the past, and probably different from future Games too…’
“I think we’re in a really good place, despite everything that’s happening in the world. And I think that’s kind of one of the things that the Olympics does for us is it lets us feel inspired and let go of all the stresses that we’re feeling in the moment. Or at least that’s what the Olympics I think is supposed to do.”
Following the Tour de Ski, the members of the team who planned to remain in Europe began a recovery training block in Seefeld, Austria, which sits at roughly 3,800’, before moving to higher elevation to begin an altitude training camp. Having come down with a head cold during the final stages of the Tour de Ski, Diggins expressed the value of this recovery block, particularly in a location where her body was not further impaired by altitude-related physiological effects.
“Within two days after the tour, I was symptom free. Five days later, totally healthy and able to train totally normally again. So that was really, really nice to dip down in altitude and recover and feel like I absorbed everything that the tour brought in terms of training stimulus.”
With the cancellation of the final two World Cups before the Olympics, the team headed to Livigno, Italy earlier than originally planned, earning them extra time training at a venue that sits at a nearly identical elevation to the competition venues in Zhangjiakou. Diggins expressed that this has provided the team with a variety of excellent training options, from challenging race courses to flat valley skiing ideal for recovery, all supported by a team of staff that includes wax techs, a chef, and a physical therapist.
Acknowledging individual variation athlete-to-athlete, Diggins explained that overall the team’s preparations have looked “normal” in terms of how they would train and peak leading into another Championship. To account for the lack of races, the team has been building in simulations, including practicing events that have not been included in the World Cup calendar yet this season.
“Yesterday, Julia and I did a skiathlon simulation,” Diggins shared. “It was awesome. It was really hard. And I’m so glad we did it. We had coaches going nuts – taking video, cheering for us. We had bibs on, we had pits set up, we had everything to simulate it, which was really nice, because we don’t get to do very many skiathlons anymore. And it was really cool to practice that pacing at altitude. That was really helpful.”
In previous press conferences, Diggins has emphasized the importance of frequent racing in helping her reach her mental and physical peak during the season. She had planned to race in at least the first World Cups after the Tour de Ski in Les Rousses, France before they were canceled. With this piece of her plan suddenly removed, what would she do to replace these stimuli to ensure her preparations were unaffected?
While Diggins shared that she loves racing in France and had been looking forward to the races in Les Rousse, she quickly found a silver lining to the cancellation. And to the many setbacks she faced in the second half of the Tour.
“[The cancellation was] kind of a huge blessing in disguise,” she stated affirmatively. “I was able to fully absorb the Tour and then build in a full training block and move up to altitude sooner. I felt like, ‘Whoa, actually, this is kind of perfect.’ This is how I would have designed it because I got in all the racing I needed to in terms of World Cups. Mentally, I felt like the tour was kind of the icing on the cake in terms of getting mentally strong. In terms of being able to push myself – being mentally there, being positive in any situation, all of that – that was the best preparation I could have ever asked for.”
In terms of replacing the intensity of World Cup racing, Diggins expressed her confidence both in the training sessions the team has put together, and the ability of her teammates to push themselves and each other.
“I feel really fortunate because my greatest strength has always been being able to push myself no matter what. And so I was like, ‘Well, this is totally fine, because even if there aren’t World Cups, that’s not a problem.’ I pushed myself in our time trials so hard that I couldn’t feel my legs and I was tasting blood. And that was in a time trial with just one other athlete.”
In year’s past, the Americans have collaborated with athletes from other nations when paths have crossed; for example, in December 2020, the Americans raced in a set of time trials with athletes from Russia, Italy, Switzerland and Germany while all were training in Davos following a canceled World Cup event in Lillehammer, Norway. In lieu of opportunities to face off on the World Cup, these collaborations have perhaps provided a measuring stick to see how an athlete’s fitness might compare at the international level. Did the lack of this type of opportunity affect Diggins mental preparation heading into her goal races in Zhangjiakou?
“In terms of the lack of international feel, that’s also been a blessing in disguise, because everyone’s worried about germs. When you get more and more people [together], then you’re exposing yourself to more and more people who aren’t in your bubble. I can’t speak for how other countries feel, but for me, it’s made me feel very safe from a COVID perspective to say, ‘Nope! We’re just gonna keep this as tight as we can, and run some very small time trials.”
Staying in the COVID-vein, Diggins also fielded questions from Matt Futterman of the New York Times regarding her fear level and the tension among the team about getting COVID, which remains rampant. A positive result would be a “nightmare scenario”, in his words, for an athlete as it could prohibit travel to Beijing, admission to the Olympic bubble, and/or the ability to compete in the Games?
“It would be silly to pretend that that’s not a stressor, right? I think it’s important to acknowledge that, COVID, especially the variants, are everywhere. It seems like every day, you hear about an athlete or somebody getting sick, and so that is hard. But I think one thing that we’ve done really well is created a bubble with really strict rules that we feel really safe within.”
Diggins explained that the team who is currently based in Livigno has minimal contact with those outside of their “bubble”. The chef is the only person from the group who goes to the grocery store, always while wearing a KN95. Otherwise, the small group only interacts with its members, not entering any buildings beyond the house they are staying in. Athletes who have recently flown over from the U.S. are staying in a separate apartment to quarantine for a week, before joining the larger team.
With reassurance from daily antigen testing and weekly PCR testing, they are living a monk-like lifestyle focused on heading out the door to train, and otherwise focusing on optimal nutrition, recovery, and logistical preparations for the Games.
“We’re trying really, really hard to make sure we protect each other. So even when we’re in this house, when we leave the room, we have our mask on. So you’ll be hanging out in the living room and everyone has KN95s on. So it’s a lot. And I think you hear the phrase ‘out of an abundance of caution’ everywhere now, but I think that is what we’re doing – taking all the cautionary steps that we can.”
Futterman acknowledged that for some, these protective measures can have an adverse effect on stress levels; rather than reassurance, the constant vigilance might leave an individual “freaked out”. Diggins affirmed that the decrease in risk relieved far more tension than the heightened awareness caused.
“It would be more stressful to feel like we’re just risking it… I think that wearing masks has actually lowered everyone’s tension level because you don’t have to wonder ‘what if?’ because we know that the masks work. So if you are wearing your mask, you don’t have to be stressed, because you’re doing everything that you can. I think that mentality of: ‘We’re going all in to protect not just ourselves, but each other’ is actually less stressful. Because if you’re the person who isn’t wearing masks and going into stores, and then you bring [exposure] into the team – that would be the actual nightmare scenario if you got someone else sick. So, for me, at least, and for the teammates here, so far that I can tell, it’s less stressful to just know that you’re doing everything possible.”
While the team has carefully been collaborating in Livigno, it is unclear what the opportunities to be together and support one another will look like once they’re on the ground in China. Diggins shared her limited knowledge of what communication and time together might look like during the Games, responding to whether it might be more isolating than years past.
“I think some of that we’re just gonna have to feel out once we’re on the ground and see and feel, after a week, what’s the situation here? How safe do we feel? How good is the WiFi in terms of having team meetings over Zoom instead of needing to find a place where we can do it in person and all wear masks. I think our team has been really, really good about masking protocols, so I do feel like there might be opportunities there.”
In terms of lodging during the Games, Diggins shared that the team will be sharing a set of apartments with four athletes per unit, split between two bedrooms with a common area in between.
“So at least to be able to make a pod with three other people. Beyond that, we’ll just have to feel it out,” she concluded.
In terms of where we can expect to see Diggins on the start lists during the Games, that also remains to be determined, which is a slight shift from what Diggins shared following Period I, earlier this season.
“The original plan was to just race everything, assuming, of course, that I have start rights to do so. And then, earlier in the year, I was thinking, ‘I hear it’s really cool – which, yay! Love it. I hope it is cold. I want it to really be winter. But if it is incredibly cold, the way it was in Ruka, that becomes really draining, because you’re out there for so long. It’s not just the race; it’s the warm up, it’s the cool down. You’re outside going through the media zone, because you need to be outside because of COVID… But you’re out there for a while. So I think we’re going to look at the situation, once we’re on the ground and see, ‘What does the transport look like? How long does it take to get in and out of the venue? How cold is it? What kind of energy drain is this?’ And then we start making the plans on, ‘Does it make sense to do every single race? Or do I sit one out in the middle and sort of store [energy] up?’ That said, traditionally, it’s been great for me to simply keep racing, it kind of takes care of itself. So I’m really excited for every single race and all these opportunities ahead, and I would I would love to be able to do that if it makes sense.”
Diggins also fielded a variety of questions along the lines of comparing her feelings and preparations leading into these Games compared to the last two, given that she is both more experienced, and perhaps facing ever-increasing external expectations as she has steadily brought more attention to the sport. Diggins recently landed on the cover of both Sports Illustrated and Outside Magazines.
Many of these questions surrounded the pressure of being a defending Olympic Champion, who has since become a World Cup Overall Champion. Has this implied a steady building of pressure felt externally as more and more eyes will be focused on her in Beijing?
“I think the pressures and expectations are definitely different,” Diggins reflected. “Headed into Sochi, I was coming in as a World Champion, (Diggins and Kikkan Randall won the team sprint in Val di Fiemme during the 2013 Championships.) but I felt that I didn’t have any eyes on me. I didn’t have any pressure to medal. I felt that – it was sort of a wonderful flying under the radar feeling of: ‘If I have a good race, awesome.’ Nobody expects anything. If I have a bad race, they’re like, ‘Cool, you’re young, whatever.’”
With less focus on her first Olympic results, Diggins recalls a lighter atmosphere at the Sochi Games with more opportunities to explore a new place and attend competitions for other sport. This shifted as the internal and external pressure built to medal in 2018 in Korea.
“And I do remember getting to go down to the coastal village [in Russia]… And I remember getting to go watch some of the biathlon races, so I actually got to go see other events. Then, in Pyeongchang, it was different because I came in with a lot of eyes and pressure and expectations. I never got to go see a single other event, because I was racing every single event of ours. So it was like race, recover, race-prep, race, recover, race-prep – it was just this cycle. So I felt that for me – I never went and saw the coast, I have no idea what South Korea looks like, someday I want to go back and see it and experience it. But I felt like it was very, very focused. And I know that in that way. Beijing will be the same. So for me, it’s not a huge shift…”
While that focus may be a necessity for Diggins and other medal-favorite athletes at any Games, the pandemic and the resulting COVID-19 safety protocols that will be enforced in Beijing will likely make the isolated “race-prep, race, recover” cycle one all cross-country skiers will experience, regardless of how close their names will appear on results sheets.
“I am sad for my younger teammates, because I want them to have that first [Olympic] experience,” Diggins said somberly. “I know it will be a little bit different. At the same time they’re young and hopefully will have many Games in their future. So at some point, they’ll get that experience of getting to go and watch bobsled and hockey and figure skating and get a little bit of that feel of that huge team unity feeling, because I do think that was pretty cool. At the last two Games, you really felt connected to other sports. And one of my favorite things was like sitting in the Athlete Resource Center, watching a race with the bobsledders and hearing their reactions to our sport, and then watching their sport and then seeing how we react to their sport. It was so cool to feel really like the whole team USA was pulling together. So I hope that we find a way to still feel that, even though obviously, we’re going to be keeping our distance because keeping each other safe is paramount.”
A silver lining of having more eyes, ears, and attention focused on Diggins is a proportionally larger microphone. Since earning a gold medal in 2018, Diggins has found her voice as an advocate, speaking out on topics ranging from eating disorders to climate change.
“My goal all along was to try to grow the sport and to try to do as much good outside of the race track as I possibly could. With my work with the Emily Program, Protect Our Winters, and the Share Winter Foundation, the goal is, ‘Let’s make this about more than just skiing.’ Because that way – win, lose, or draw – you’ve taken this time that you are in the spotlight and actually did something with it. And that does feel good. So in that way, it’s great to be one of the stars of Team USA, because that brings attention to mental health and climate change. And these things that I’ve been shouting about for four years – people are really listening.”
“The flip side is, yeah, it is hard not to feel like there’s a lot of external pressure. But that doesn’t mean that I have to feel it. I know it’s there, and again – sort of like COVID – it would be silly to not acknowledge it. It would be silly to pretend that it’s not a thing. Of course it is. But for me, it’s more of like, ‘Whoa, what a cool, privileged place to be in. 15 year old Jesse would be so psyched to learn that this is how I’m coming into my third Olympics, let alone any Olympics.’ So for me, the key has been flipping it around and reframing it as an amazing privilege to get to carry this amount of pressure and hopefully show that it’s totally possible to come in and still be yourself; to care about the things you care about; to be a good teammate; and to just focus on what you can control. And you’ve just got to let the rest go.”
Perhaps the size and variety of media publications present at her conference is evidence on its own that Diggins has been identified, outright or otherwise, as an athlete to watch at the 2022 Games. Since the Pyeongchang Games, she has been on the podium in ten freestyle sprints, winning two. She was second behind Marit Bjørgen at the 30k freestyle at the Holmenkollen in March, 2018, the last time she competed in the event.
Diggins has raced three 7.5k/7.5 skiathlons in the last Olympic Quad, taking second to Norway’s Therese Johaug in December, 2019 and fifth place, behind an all-Norway podium plus Sweden’s Ebba Anderson in fourth, in January, 2021. And then there are the relays, for which she has been known since the beginning of her career.
Perhaps the only event where Diggins may not be considered a medal contender is the 10k classic. While she just one podium in this event over the last Quad, third place in Val Müstair in the 2020/21 Tour de Ski with a Norwegian-free field, she has cracked the top-10 enough times not to be ruled out.
With these performances across all race disciplines and distances, it might be impossible for Diggins not to feel some amount of pressure heading into Beijing. She explained that managing this, for her, comes down to taking ownership and control over her definition of success.
“One thing to understand is that when it comes to pressure, there will never be a point where you are enough, if you start listening to it, right, because then it’ll be ‘Will you podium?’ to ‘Why didn’t you win?’ And at some point, it’ll be, ‘Why didn’t you win by more? Why wasn’t it more impressive?’ There’s no end point.
“So it’s better to not let my self-worth be determined by anyone other than myself. And that’s easier said than done. It’s something I’m obviously still working on with my sports psychologist, but I think it’s so important to say that I get to define what success looks like. And I’m the only one who gets to say that and nobody else. It’s important for me to [establish] ahead of time what that means. And so for me success at the Games means crossing the finish line with nothing left in the tank and knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that I left it all out there. And that I feel confident I can do.”
Diggins also proposed a definition that was multi-faceted, shifting the focus away from the outcomes on the podium or results list.
“The other thing success means is being a good teammate, like, Who are you off the snow? What kind of person? Are you? What do you stand for? How do you treat the people around you? That’s really important. And the third thing is, how did you prepare? Did you do everything possible? And not just in the last week or the last month? Or even the last year? The last decade of training for skiing? Have I put everything I have towards this? So I don’t have to wonder what if I had just committed? And if I can do all those things, and cross that finish line and look back and go, that was it? That was my best effort. And that was everything I had, then that will be success? And it doesn’t have to be a medal? It’d be great if it is. It will be fine, if it isn’t. Because at the end of the day, I know that whether or not you earn a medal is not within your control. You can’t control anyone’s effort, but your own. So I think that’s been so important for me in trying to deal with that kind of pressure.”
Diggins concluded by sharing a quote that resonated with her from two-time Olympian and former national team coach, Pete Vordenberg. He said, “Every time you do something, it’s for the first time. And even if you do it again, it will be different. And you will be different. So enjoy it.”
Unpacking this, Diggins explained, “I think that’s so important to remember because it’s not the same as Pyeongchang. And that’s okay. It’s going to be different. And it’s also going to be the first time I’ve ever been to this Olympics, because: different trails, different country, different year, different Jessie. So I think it’s important to remember that I don’t have to go in there defending anything. Nothing makes that medal and what I did four years ago disappear, and I won’t disappear if I don’t do it again.”
Stay tuned for a few additional insights from Diggins coach and wax tech, Jason Cork, who also appeared at the conference.
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646