The ten-kilometer skate climb in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is one of the most grueling courses on cross-country skiing’s World Cup circuit. After a few fast, mostly flat kilometers, athletes push and glide 1,300 vertical feet to the finish line midway up Alpe Cermis, an alpine ski hill. At its steepest, the grade reaches 44 percent. “Spectators on their alpine touring gear will have their heel risers in the highest position,” says Simi Hamilton, a member of the men’s U.S. Nordic Ski Team. “That’s always a reminder of how insane it is.” The course is the last stage of the Tour de Ski, an annual series of eight World Cup races in ten days, one of the most difficult events in the sport.
On Sunday, 29-year-old Jessie Diggins ground her way through the last stretch of the climb and, exhausted, attempted to raise her hands overhead in triumph before flopping face-first into the snow. She had finished second place in the race, and first overall in the stage race—the only North American in history to achieve such a feat. Diggins already has dozens of World Cup podiums and one Olympic gold medal to her name (the first for any American, alongside Kikkan Randall), but her win in Italy is one of the most significant victories in U.S. nordic skiing.
When organizers created the Tour de Ski in 2006, they modeled it after the Tour de France. “It was conceived as a premier event to stand alongside world championships and Olympic-medal-caliber success, to really emphasize all-arounders and resilience,” says Zach Caldwell, a former coach to several U.S. team members, who now runs a nordic shop in Vermont. Over the course of the event, athletes compete in races of varying distances and techniques—skate, classic, distance, sprint—with only two rest days.
“The level of athleticism that is demanded, and the sheer level of consistency and resiliency it requires, is just incredible,” says Caldwell. “You can’t afford a bad day.” Landing on the Tour de Ski podium is a lot like landing on the Tour de France podium. Each stage has a first-, second-, and third-place winner. Overall champions are those with the best combined time. Those that finish in the top three demonstrate unrivaled levels of versatility, fitness, and mental and physical grit. “What matters more, a Tour de France win or an Olympic medal in cycling?” Caldwell says, clearly favoring the former.
For competitors, success at the Tour de Ski often comes down to details. A single tactical error can cost precious seconds or minutes that are hard to claw back. And the work does not end at the finish line. “You’re doing really high-power outputs that would generally call for multiple days to fully recover,” says Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall, who competed in three Tours during her tenure on the U.S. Ski Team. Doing so back-to-back requires something close to perfection, not just athletically and tactically, but also in terms of rest, recovery, nutrition, and gear. Not to mention the complex logistics of moving an entire team from one Central European race venue to the next, often hours apart. “It’s not just one race you have to put together perfectly,” says Diggins. “It’s eight races over ten days of being on both mentally and physically. For the coaches and wax techs, it’s delivering competitive skis day after day, which they did flawlessly.” Simply finishing is a team effort between athletes, coaches, and a deep well of support staff.
Diggins, who finished third overall two years ago, says that the Tour de Ski has always been a big goal. But she’s struggled to maintain the consistent results an athlete needs to top the podium. For her, the most difficult discipline is classic skiing, which is less power based. “Although my classic skiing has improved drastically over the years after so much hard work, it’s still my weaker side,” she says. “I knew that I had to dig incredibly deep and fight for every single second if I was to remain competitive in the Tour.” Stages five and six—the 10K classic pursuit in Toblach and the 10K classic mass start in Val di Fiemme—posed the biggest challenges.
Luckily, pushing hard is Diggins’s forte. “Jessie’s ability to dig in really sets her apart,” says Caldwell. “You just never see her do anything less than turn herself inside out.” In stage six, Diggins says she pushed so hard that, by the time she finished, she was numb from the waist down. “I was so proud of the fight and grit I showed out there,” she says. “Staying as close to the leaders as possible is what made the Tour win possible.” When she crossed the finish line at Alpe Cermis, she knew she’d won—not just for herself, but for all of U.S. skiing. For a country accustomed to being the underdog on the World Cup circuit, victories like this one feel even more significant. “This may be the biggest thing I’ll ever accomplish in my entire career,” she says, “simply because of how insanely hard it is for both myself and for the entire team.”
Few were prouder than her teammates. “The Tour winners are the best overall skiers, who also have some crazy grit, and I can’t think of anyone more deserving than Jessie,” says Sophie Caldwell Hamilton, a member of the women’s U.S. Nordic Team who notched a World Cup podium earlier this season. “I see the work she puts in day in and day out throughout the training season.”
Diggins’s victory was the highlight of a week filled with strong American performances. Teammate Rosie Brennan, 32, placed sixth overall, after sitting in second place for the first several stages. “Absent Jessie, Rosie’s result would be worthy of celebration on its own,” says Caldwell. “It would have been one of the very best Tour finishes by an American ever.” Meanwhile, 22-year-old Hailey Swirbul and 20-year-old Gus Schumacher finished the Tour in 18th place overall for women and men, respectively.
“We have all these young athletes doing the tour for the first time, and we saw incredible performances from them,” says Randall. “In turn, they’re seeing Jessie and Rosie Brennan up there, and that’s giving them confidence—they can get there, too.”