Nearly 20 years removed from riding in her father’s backpack as he sloped down Minnesota ski hills, Jessie Diggins has made a name for herself nationally — and now internationally — as a professional Nordic skier.

To the roars of more than 1,000 fans lining the Italian cross-country skiing raceway approaching the finish line of the 2013 Nordic World Championships, the 21-year-old Afton native led the U.S. Ski Team to its first gold medal on Feb. 24. She was partnered with Olympian Kikkan Randall in the team sprint event, a two-person relay, when the medal almost slipped out of reach.

“A girl behind me stepped on my pole and it came off,” Diggins said. “I was skiing with one pole for about 100 meters, just using my legs and swinging my arm. One of our coaches came down with a replacement pole, but it was a men’s pole.”

Diggins fought the height and weight change of the larger men’s ski pole and still managed to tag off to Randall, while sprinting to a two-second lead on the pack. Randall added another six seconds in her final leg before the pair took gold by an astonishing eight-second lead.

“It was the best race of my entire life,” Diggins said.

After her 39-race, 10-country, five-month championship season, Diggins is back to recharge for Olympic training.

Her skiing life began before she could walk, perched in her father’s backpack pulling his hair when she wanted him to go faster.

That early experience aside, she officially began as a seventh-grader on the Ponies’ ski team But as a high school senior, Diggins had an important decision to make: follow her peers and go to college, or chase her dream as a professional Nordic skier.

“I supported her decision, but my advice to her was to pursue her skiing in college,” Stillwater Nordic skiing boys’ coach Torry Kraftson said. “The image I had in my head of a full-time Nordic skier wasn’t a great one. I know a lot of people living out of cars and their parents’ basements, but Jessie has proved she is someone who can handle it.”

Diggins still calls her parents’ Afton residence home, but that’s only when she’s in the country. The gold medalist guessed she spent about six days in the United States during this season, which was November through March.

In the United States, Diggins is a five-time U.S. national champion, nine-time junior national champion and three-time Nordic state champion in Minnesota.

She could have shifted to dominate the college ranks, much like she did to the girls’ and boys’ teams in Stillwater.

“Boys didn’t feel bad about losing to Jessie,” Kraftson said. “They knew she was a little bit out of their league anyway.”

But like her other loves of swimming, soccer, dance and track, her continuing education would also take a back seat to cross-country skiing.

A scholarship to Northern Michigan University was delayed for a year for Diggins to chase her dream. She already had a scholarship from the Presidential Scholars Foundation, guaranteeing her a free education regardless of skiing performance.

“It was a gamble,” Diggins said. “Had I been injured or sick, it wouldn’t have happened. But that’s why I had the presidential [scholarship], so if anything happened I could still go to school.”

Diggins joined the Central Cross Country Elite Team, a Midwest-based professional Nordic ski team.

After earning her first U.S. title in 2011, she forever altered her college plans and took a spot on the U.S. Ski Team’s B-squad, followed by four titles in the 2012 U.S. Championships.

“I called up Northern Michigan and said I wasn’t coming,” Diggins said. “I don’t think I’ll go to college officially until I’m probably 35.”

Professional Nordic skier isn’t a lucrative occupation, as Diggins’ largest purse was about $6,000 despite all of her national and international championships. But as she prepares for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, she said her best skiing is still ahead of her.

“Normally you peak in your mid-to late 20s,” Diggins said. “I definitely plan to be racing the World Cup for the next 10 years. I’m nowhere close to my peak yet.”

Diggins keeps rising in the ranks, trying to put Nordic skiing, a popular European sport, on the U.S. map.

“Countries are starting to watch us, take us seriously,” Diggins said about U.S. Nordic skiing. “I think I have almost more Swedish fans than I do in the U.S.”

Andrew Krammer is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.