There aren’t many things in this world that can push Jessie Diggins to tears. She talks about the late stages of a cross-country ski race — when muscles burn with fatigue and lungs scream for a respite — like others talk about a beach vacation. Half-frozen fingers, blisters and crashes seem like mere nuisances.
The Afton native says her greatest strength is her ability and willingness to “go deep into the pain cave,’’ a primary reason she is part of a U.S. women’s cross-country team poised to make history at the Sochi Olympics. But she didn’t get there on her own. Diggins, 22, is the product of a community that nurtured her fledgling talent and continues to be the wind at her back.
During the World Cup season, dozens of people in the Stillwater area — family, friends, former classmates and teammates, sponsors, young skiers — awake before dawn to turn on their computers and watch Diggins race in Europe. Their care packages, posters and notes of encouragement have kept her connected to home over the past two years, as Diggins skied her way into the Olympics by winning a world championship in the team sprint and earning the first U.S. medals ever in two World Cup events.
Her next aim is to help the United States win its first Olympic medal in women’s cross-country skiing. Last fall, before she embarked on the World Cup season, Diggins finally revealed what it takes to make her cry. A packed house at Stillwater’s Chilkoot Café contributed $10,207 for her travel and training expenses and wrapped her in a collective embrace, ensuring her famously stout heart would be warmed all the way to the Winter Games.
“I feel so lucky,’’ said Diggins, who is expected to anchor the 4x5-kilometer relay and compete in other events in Sochi. “Nearly every other day, I’ve gotten an e-mail from someone I’ve met; old friends and old teammates, friends from elementary school who say, ‘We’re so proud of you. We’re cheering you on.’ That means so much to me, especially because most of the people I’m hearing from are people who believed in me from Day One, long before I had any results.
“They know this is my dream, and I’m chasing it down. It’s amazing to have that kind of support behind me. It makes a difference.’’
Stillwater High School coach Kris Hansen, who guided Diggins to three state individual titles, said that feeling cuts both ways. Diggins maintains close ties to the community, does youth ski clinics and school programs and writes a blog for the Minnesota Youth Ski League.
The United States has won only one Olympic medal in cross-country skiing, the silver earned by Bill Koch in 1976. Diggins helped the women’s team to a breakthrough season in 2012-13, teaming with Kikkan Randall to win the world championship in the team sprint and the country’s first World Cup gold medal in that event. She also has anchored the 4x5K relay to a pair of bronze medals, including one in Norway last December, marking the first World Cup medals won by a U.S. relay team.
According to Hansen, young Minnesota skiers draw as much strength from that as Diggins does from the posters and notes they send to her. “A lot of girls who weren’t varsity when Jessie was on the team still feel a strong connection to her,’’ Hansen said. “I think a lot of people all over Minnesota identify with her.
“One of the things Jessie and her teammates have done so well is that they’re not just fast skiers. They’re fast skiers who are so generous with their success. Everyone gets a piece of it. You feel like you’re part of it.’’
On skis at age 3
Before Diggins could stand, she rode in the backpack of her father, Clay, as he plied the cross-country trails on family outings. “I used to pull his hair and yell, ‘Mush, mush,’ like a sled dog,’’ Jessie recalled. By the age of 3, she was gliding on her own skinny skis; three years later, she wanted to see how fast she could go.
Minnesota’s strong Nordic ski culture, she said, gave her the training, support and encouragement to excel. After high school, Diggins turned down a scholarship to Northern Michigan to try life as a full-time ski racer. In her first season, she won a U.S. freestyle sprint title and competed at the world championships; the following year, she swept the four races at the national championships and scored in eight consecutive events in her first full season on the World Cup circuit.
The U.S. team produced the best results in its history last winter, with Diggins and Randall providing much of its fuel. In addition to her bottomless ability to push through pain late in a race, Diggins brought a spirit of fun, beginning a now-famous ritual of decorating the team’s faces with paint and glitter before its races.
“Jessie has an incredible tenacity to her, but she balances that so well with her positive, overflowing, energetic demeanor,’’ said Randall, who at 31 is the most successful woman in U.S. Nordic skiing history. “It’s really fun to have someone who you know can roll her eyes in the back of her head and give everything she has, but at the same time is blasting fun music and putting on sparkles before the race.
“She’s kind of like a little fairy. There are days when you’re focused and anxious about the race coming up, and swiping those sparkles across your face reminds you that we do this because it’s fun. And the more fun we have, the faster we ski.’’
Still, Diggins is one tough Tinkerbell. Last summer, when she strained a muscle in her foot, she was ordered to wear a boot and use crutches; the next day, she was spinning on an exercise bike with one leg and doing pullups with the boot on. She has endured several mishaps this season, including crashes, broken poles and the loss of a glove during a 10K race in single-digit temperatures.
As the Olympics approach, Diggins has outraced that bad luck. She scored her best-ever finish in the grueling Tour de Ski last month, placing 13th overall in the seven-race, nine-day series. Two weeks ago, she set a personal best with a fifth-place finish in a World Cup sprint.
“With this being my first Olympics, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel going in,’’ Diggins said. “I’ve prepared as well as I possibly can. Looking back over the last six years, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I feel I’m as ready as I can be.’’
Emotional, financial support
On her website, Diggins often posts pictures of the cards and gifts sent from Minnesota. “She puts the cards on her hotel walls,’’ said her mother, Deb Diggins. “If she feels homesick or alone, she can look at all that support. She says that’s what gets her through those five months in Europe.’’
So do the financial contributions. Because the U.S. Ski Team stipend doesn’t cover all of her costs to train and race on the World Cup circuit, many Twin Cities companies and individuals have pitched in, including Slumberland, Fastenal and the athletic apparel company Podiumwear.
The Chilkoot Café can accommodate 50 people. Co-owner Lee Stylos said he had to turn away another 20 from the November fundraiser, which drew people of all ages. One of Hansen’s daughters bought her $100 ticket with money from baby-sitting.
Deb and Clay Diggins noted that many people in Stillwater feel personally invested in Jessie’s success, because hundreds of them crossed paths with her during her development into an elite skier. “And they don’t just say it, they live it,’’ Clay Diggins said. “It takes a community to nurture talent, and she’s had the support of this community since she was a kid.
“It didn’t just happen in the Olympic year. It happened when she really needed it, when she was putting in the work to get there. That’s a huge deal to us.’’
Diggins’s parents, who will travel to Sochi, are setting up a Facebook page to keep Afton and Stillwater abreast of Jessie’s Olympic debut.
At the fundraiser, Hansen asked for a show of hands from all those who regularly arose at 5 a.m. to watch Diggins’ races on their computers. Dozens of hands shot up around the room. “Let’s channel that,’’ she said. “Let’s give Jessie a big cheer so she can carry it with her.’’
Diggins hugged her former coach amid the roar, then wiped her moist eyes. She reminded Hansen that she wasn’t supposed to make her cry, but she didn’t seem to mind.
“Sometimes, you have to travel away from home to realize how lucky you are,’’ she said. “I know that if I race my heart out, I can come home and get the same support from this community, win or lose. That’s the best feeling.’’