Images from Jessie Diggins black and white photo shoot
Images from Jessie Diggins black and white photo shoot
Diggins finds herself in a position that few nordic skiers have been in before: having both the results and the fan base to make people pay attention to the sport, and to make a living from it as a result. (Photos: Ian Allen)

Jessie Diggins Is Out to Make Olympic History (Again)


Four years ago, the Minnesota phenom won historic Olympic gold in cross-country skiing, alongside Kikkan Randall. She was just getting going.


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For starters, there’s the foot-long, platinum-blond braid that trails in the air behind Jessie Diggins, smacking against her broad, chiseled lats as she rockets down the road. It’s as if she’s producing more energy than her skis can use, and the excess is coming out the top of her head.

Then there’s the noise. As Diggins begins her descent toward where I’m standing at the side of the road, a grunt is barely audible above the rhythmic clacking of carbide pole tips against pavement. It’s 80 degrees and sunny on a late-June Monday in Peru, Vermont. Which means that Diggins and ten of her teammates from the Stratton Mountain School T2 club team are on roller skis—roughly three-foot-long cross-country boards with wheels at either end. At best a mere approximation of true cross-country skiing, this is the only way they can train for the technical demands of their sport year-round. They stride back and forth across the hot pavement, past barns and clapboard houses, dressed in bike helmets, running shorts, and nordic ski boots.

The noise grows louder as Diggins zooms toward the bottom of the hill. She’s bent over in a loose tuck with her hands on her knees, slack-jawed with exhaustion, exhaling—yelling, really—in hoarse bursts. Ahhh!… Ahhh!… Ahhh!…

It’s an alien sound, yet unsurprising if you’ve ever seen the 30-year-old launch herself across a finish line—for example, when she and Kikkan Randall won the United States’ first gold in cross-country skiing, in the team sprint at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. As Diggins rolls along patched asphalt, panting heavily, I can’t help but imagine that this is how the gold-medal moment sounded: like someone who has given exactly 100 percent.

After a brief recovery, the group starts another set of intervals. Diggins’s coach, Jason Cork, pedals behind them on a bike. By the end of the first interval, Diggins has pulled ahead of her teammates. She and Cork roll to the side of the road. From the back pocket of his bike jersey, Cork grabs a blood-lactate device, which he’ll use to track how efficiently Diggins’s body is performing. The gadget isn’t working. He has to change the batteries.

“It’s because somebody’s watching,” Diggins says, turning toward me and flashing a wide, conspiratorial grin.

Not that Diggins isn’t used to spectators at this point. She has 35 World Cup podiums and four World Championship medals to her name. Even before she and Randall won Olympic gold, Diggins was among the country’s most famous cross-country skiers, one of a small group of women who’d helped the national team podium far more frequently than at any other time in its history. Victory in Pyeongchang signified the end of a decades-long underdog chapter in U.S. nordic skiing.

Randall retired at the end of that season, but Diggins was just getting started. Since then she has stood on more than 20 World Cup podiums. (There are around 30 women’s World Cup races each season.) Eight of those were in 2021, her best season to date. That included the overall win at the Tour de Ski—a stage race, consisting of eight World Cup events in ten days, that many believe is the sport’s biggest challenge. No other North American had ever won it. The victory rocketed her to the top of the World Cup standings, and she finished the season clutching both the overall title and the distance title—two more firsts for American women. Diggins is now one of the winningest cross-country skiers the U.S. has ever produced. And last winter, she was the best female racer in the sport. The only question is: Can she turn that momentum into more Olympic hardware at the 2022 Beijing Games’ six nordic events?

Jessie Diggins roller skiing
(Ian Allen)

Cross-country skiing may be the truest test of overall athleticism. It calls upon almost every part of the body and every category of fitness simultaneously. Imagine combining the aerobic efficiency and tactical strategy of road cycling with the agility of trail running and the power, coordination, and core and upper-body strength of gymnastics, all while flying up and down hills on 44-millimeter-wide, edgeless skis in subfreezing temperatures amid variable snow conditions. Add to that the technique, which is absurdly complex. It starts in the feet and goes all the way up to the fingertips as the skier explodes out of each stride and transfers their weight back and forth from ski to ski, their entire trunk contracting in sync with their lower half. Nailing it feels like floating—and also like you’re going to puke.

Only the most technically gifted can make this alchemy look graceful. Diggins says she has never been one of those skiers. At her worst, when she’s totally spent, her form looks flappy and chaotic. Her hips twist, her head bobs up and down, and her torso is folded forward at the waist. “No one’s ever looked at me and been like, ‘That’s beautiful skiing,’” Diggins says. “People look at me and they’re like, ‘She looks like the wheels are coming off, yet somehow she’s still moving.’ That’s how it’s always been.”

Diggins is also known for trying really hard. To clarify: all professional athletes try hard; it’s the number one job requirement. Diggins simply has the ability to push right up against the edge of what her body can handle, then hold it for an impossibly long time. Often she goes so all out that her vision turns pink, her hearing fades, and her legs lose feeling, leaving her unable to walk for several minutes after crossing the finish line.

Of course, Diggins doesn’t always give 100 percent. Sometimes she gives 99, or 98.5. (But never, she says, less than 97.) There are days when pushing out that extra inch of effort isn’t worth the weeks of recovery it will cost. At other times, she gives 100 percent and it doesn’t pay off. But occasionally, everything aligns.

“No one’s ever looked at me and been like, ‘That’s beautiful skiing,’” Diggins says. “People look at me and they’re like, ‘She looks like the wheels are coming off, yet somehow she’s still moving.’”

Exhibit A: that gold-medal race in Pyeong­chang. The team sprint—a two-­person, six-lap relay around a 1.25-kilometer course—is frenzied. To switch off between laps, teammates must navigate an open exchange zone (there are no track-style lanes) and tag their partner without crashing into the other competitors.

After Diggins and Randall skied the first three laps conservatively, Diggins surged, leading a breakaway group with Norway and Sweden. Randall held the team’s position on loop five. By the final loop, anyone watching could do the math: the three front-runners were significantly ahead, destined for medals. The only question was in what order.

But Diggins was only dimly aware of all that. She waited until the last possible moment to make her move, trusting her ability to outsprint Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla and Sweden’s Stina Nilsson, who just happened to be the newly crowned gold medalist in the individual sprint. As the women cleared the final curve, Diggins dropped the hammer.

By this point, NBC commentator Chad Salmela, a coach from Minnesota who has known Diggins since she was in high school, was cutting off Steve Schlanger, the play-by-play announcer, and screaming into the microphone.

“As the roars rattle around the cross-country stadium in Pyeongchang,” said Schlanger, “Sweden, the U.S., and Norway coming to the line—”

“Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins!” shrieked Salmela. “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Diggins lunged for the finish line, her ski crossing just inches ahead of Nilsson’s.

“Gold!”

Diggins collapsed on the snow, her arms sprawled at her sides, her face covered in sweat and glitter. It was cross-country skiing’s Miracle on Ice.

Jessie Diggins roller skiing
(Ian Allen)
Portrait from Jessie Diggins black and white photo shoot
(Ian Allen)

To understand why that gold medal was such a big deal—and how Diggins got to be the one to dive across the finish for it—you have to understand that she came of age at the perfect time in U.S. cross-country-skiing history.

The sport is huge in Europe, where pros are treated like celebrities. But historically it has only resonated in small pockets in the States. “I don’t think American sports culture has ever really been organized around sustained discomfort,” says Zach Caldwell, a coach who has worked with several U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team athletes. Luckily, Afton, Minnesota, where Diggins was raised, is in one of those pockets. Her parents, Deb and Clay, are both avid skiers, and Diggins grew up going to big, weekend-long cross-country-skiing festivals with hundreds of fans ringing cowbells and with hot blueberry soup at the aid stations.

She first clicked into three-pin bindings at the age of three, and some of her earliest winter memories are of playing tag and soccer on skis with the Minnesota Youth Ski Club. Diggins was naturally good at nearly everything she tried: dance, swimming, track. But it was soon obvious that she had the potential to be an exceptional skier.

“Technique that takes normal people years to perfect she nailed in a minute and a half,” says Kris Hansen, who coached the Stillwater High School cross-country ski team. Diggins joined Stillwater’s JV squad when she was still in seventh grade, and was bumped up to varsity by the end of the year. It was at a three-kilometer relay around Christmas of Diggins’s eighth-grade year that Hansen realized her rising star was more than just fast. Diggins jumped into the anchor leg with the Stillwater Ponies down by a minute and a half. There was one skier from another team who she had to pass for her team to win, but she didn’t know which one. “I felt like I was going to die, but I kept looking up, seeing a skier from Forest Lake, and thinking, Crap, I gotta go get her,” Diggins says. She finished in an all-out sprint, unable to breathe and on the verge of blacking out, in first place.

Afterward she asked Hansen, “Isn’t it weird when you start to get tunnel vision and taste iron in your mouth?” It took Hansen by surprise. Tasting metal can happen as a result of increased pressure or fluid buildup in the lungs during extreme exertion. “There are very few athletes who ever push themselves that hard,” Hansen says. “Certainly not very many who do so when they’re 14 years old.” Up until that day, Diggins thought she’d been giving 100 percent in races. Only now had she discovered her true limits. It felt like a superpower. If she could train her body to go that hard consistently, a whole new world of racing would open up.

On the World Cup circuit, Diggins developed a reputation for her scrappy racing style and her penchant for smiling and glitter, which she wears in excess and doles out to teammates. (They call her Sparkle Chipmunk.)

Over the next four years, Diggins established herself as one of the best high school racers in the country. Simultaneously, the U.S. national program was experiencing its own ascension.

From mid-November through mid-March, World Cup athletes live on the road, traveling from venue to venue in places like Sweden, Germany, Italy, Finland, Russia, and Norway. When the series debuted in the early eighties, the U.S. was pretty good. The national program had a small men’s team earning regular podiums, among its athletes Bill Koch, who won Olympic silver in 1976 and the overall World Cup title in 1982. There were also a few strong women achieving top results, like Alison Owen-Spencer, who won a 1978 test event for what would soon become the women’s World Cup.

But that success was short-lived. For years even the country’s best athletes struggled to compete against their European counterparts. By the early aughts, there was no longer a U.S. women’s team at all. When Kikkan Randall started racing World Cups during that decade, she was the only woman consistently representing the U.S. on the international stage.

That began to change in 2006, the year Diggins entered high school. U.S. cross-country head coach Pete Vordenberg, among others, persuaded the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association to double the team’s budget to a total of $1 million. The community also leveled up its training and leaned into the club model, in which athletes train with regional professional teams instead of working on their skills independently or at the Olympic center in Park City, Utah.

The new approach worked. In 2006, Andy Newell earned the first World Cup podium for the U.S. since 1983. In 2007, Randall became the first American woman to climb a World Cup podium. Diggins joined the national team in 2011, at age 20. “We were very much growing and building,” Diggins says. “It was cool to feel like I was a part of that.”

Diggins nips Sweden’s Stina Nilsson at the finish line in 2018 to win the United States its first-ever Olympic gold in nordic skiing.
Diggins (left) nips Sweden’s Stina Nilsson at the finish line in 2018 to win the United States its first-ever Olympic gold in nordic skiing. (Matthias Hangst/Getty)

On the World Cup circuit, Diggins developed a reputation for two things: her scrappy racing style and her penchant for smiling and glitter, which she wears in excess and doles out to teammates. (They call her Sparkle Chipmunk.) In a sport known for seriousness, she stuck out. “She was like the kid in the room,” says Liz Stephen, a former national team member. “Kids are tiring in a lot of senses, but they bring this joy you don’t even realize you need, because you’re too tired to realize it.” She has long been this way, both intense and ebullient. But the balance wasn’t always quite right.

Matt Whitcomb, head coach of the U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team, remembers the first time he met Diggins, at a ­talent-identification camp in Wisconsin when she was in high school. It wasn’t her athleticism that made her stand out. It was her evident determination. After lunch all the other kids went swimming; Diggins hung back to ask the coaches to help her work on technique. “What we didn’t see,” says Whitcomb, “were the demons within that drive.”

Though she finally gave up other sports during her senior year, Diggins continued to play in the orchestra and maintain a 4.0 GPA, all while traveling to races and grappling with the uncertainty of starting a professional ski career. At a time when everything else felt out of control, she homed in on her body. It was too big, she thought. If she wanted to make it as a pro, she’d have to be leaner. In the spring of her senior year, Diggins developed an eating disorder. It started with food restriction, then morphed into cookies after school followed by an extra run to burn them off. She purged for the first time a few weeks after graduation; by the end of summer, she was doing it five times a day, and wasn’t keeping down a single meal.

Diggins was living at home, training up to four hours a day, and traveling to national-team camps. Deb and Clay knew something was wrong, and they persuaded their daughter to contact the Emily Program, a care center where Diggins ultimately enrolled in ­intensive treatment. “I would sometimes wake up at night to make sure she was breathing,” Deb says. “Because your heart can stop and you can die in your sleep when your electrolytes are that off.” Over the course of that summer and fall, Diggins began to make headway.

But recovery was far from straightforward. “For me it was about reducing the rate of symptoms”—that is, purgings—“from multiple times a day down to once a day down to a couple of times a week,” Diggins says. Even now, she’ll hear the voice of her old eating disorder in her head in moments of acute stress. If only I was thinner, I would have performed better. “There are times when I have to remind myself how far I’ve come,” she says. “Now my coping mechanism is calling my sports psych, watching something stupid on Netflix, journaling, and meditating instead of hurting myself.”

The phrase “both … and” comes up a lot when Diggins talks about her eating disorder and about ski racing in general. She can be both gritty and girly. She can take training seriously and still wear glitter or have an impromptu dance party with her teammates. “Sometimes to give 100 percent, you have to figure out where other areas of your life need to be a little bit more flexible or softer,” she says. Without that balance, everything gets out of whack.

Back in Vermont, that equilibrium is on full display as she ticks off intervals with piercing intensity. In between, she’s focused but casual, guzzling sports drinks and chatting with coach Cork about the heat—how it’s making her feet swell, whether it’s partially responsible for her lactate levels being higher than she’d like. When it’s time for a bathroom break, she and two teammates roll a few feet off the road and drop trou without breaking conversation. She belts Harry Styles’s “Watermelon Sugar” while waiting in line to have water poured over her head.

“I’m just trying to look like I’m sweaty,” she jokes to her teammate Alayna Sonnesyn as the jug is hoisted in the air. “Make it look like I’m trying really hard.”

“I don’t think you have to make it look like that,” Sonnesyn says. Diggins chuckles and blinks the mix of water and perspiration from her eyes.

“I don’t look at the Pyeongchang medal. It’s not even here,” she says, referring to her condo at Stratton. “I don’t want to use the medal as a fallback. You don’t get a free ride for life because you did one cool thing.”

Diggins now finds herself in a position that few nordic skiers have been in before: having both the results and the fan base to make people pay attention to the sport, and to make a living from it as a result. The gold medal catapulted her to a new level of fame in the U.S. After the 2018 Olympics, she signed a book deal (Brave Enough came out in March of 2020) and decided to go public about her eating disorder.

Diggins seems at home in the role of America’s cross-country-skiing superstar. She’s the only athlete on the national team with a personal coach who trains with her all summer and travels with her all winter. “She is the example that younger athletes look up to, to see what it takes to be at the top,” says Julia Kern, who had a poster of Diggins on her wall before joining the national team seven years ago. “She’s the cheerleader but also very professional in what she does.” When Kern has a bad race, Diggins will invite her sledding to take her mind off things. But she also reminds teammates not to be late for the van ride to the race start. She nudges younger athletes to consider dropping fewer f-bombs on their Instagram, because that’s not the best way to attract and retain sponsors.

In early 2021, after Diggins’s Tour de Ski victory, the team was on fire. Young gun Hailey Swirbul had notched her first World Cup podium at a race in Davos, Switzerland. Thirty-three-year-old Rosie Brennan was having a breakout season, including a sixth-place finish in the Tour de Ski. Diggins and Brennan even took the first and second podium spots, respectively, in stages three and four—the first time Americans had gone one-two at a World Cup event. By the time the World Championships rolled around in March, the U.S. cross-country team was hungry for more hardware. For the first time in her career, Diggins was told by someone in the organization’s leadership that they wanted her to medal. Of course, then everything that could have gone wrong that week did, and Diggins went home empty-handed. It was a learning experience. “Something we’ve talked about is that pressure cannot come from within the house,” she says.

She has also put a lot of work into buttressing herself against the attention and expectations that she knows are coming. “I don’t look at the Pyeongchang medal. It’s not even here,” she says, referring to her condo at Stratton. (She keeps it in her parents’ basement.) “I don’t want to use the medal or the World Cup titles as a fallback. You don’t get a free ride for life because you did one cool thing.”

Diggins routinely gets questions from parents asking how they can make sure their kid has a shot at the Olympics. Her answer comes quickly: You don’t. “You don’t push the results,” she says. “You don’t push them to specialize. You push the fun.”

That’s part of the reason for the glitter, the sledding missions, and the dancing. They’re reminders that ski racing should be enjoyable. “We can’t take ourselves so seriously, because then we start piling on pressure,” she says. “This sport doesn’t have to be a life-or-death thing.”