It would be easy for Jessie Diggins to give people the answer they expect. Whenever the Afton native is asked whether making the Olympic team would fulfill a lifelong dream, she knows they assume the Winter Games are the ultimate goal for any cross-country skier, the only payoff that could make all that sweat and pain worthwhile.
Diggins pondered that last week, just after arriving in Sochi, Russia -- site of the 2014 Winter Olympics -- for a World Cup competition. In her first full season as a member of the United States A Team, she has made history, winning the first-ever medals for her country in two events. She has laughed with her teammates at their inability to communicate with Russian plumbers, watched reindeer cross the road in Finland, stood on a podium with happy tears streaking her red, white and blue face paint.
As a young star on the rising U.S. cross-country team, Diggins, 21, expects to return to Sochi one year from now as an Olympic athlete. That is not what drove her to pass up an academic scholarship at Northern Michigan to try life as a ski racer. The three-time high school state champion from Stillwater already is living out her athletic dream, competing at the top international level of her sport as part of a close-knit team.
Diggins understands that most Americans notice cross-country ski racing only during the Olympics, if at all. Few outside of her family and friends know she anchored the U.S. to its first medal in a World Cup relay event last November in Sweden, or that she teamed with American star Kikkan Randall two weeks later to earn her country its first gold in a World Cup team event.
It would sound better to most ears, Diggins speculated, if she said what was expected and declared that everything else was just a leadup to the Winter Games. Except it wouldn't be true, not for a woman who feels every day as an elite athlete is as good as gold.
"The Olympics have been a big goal for a long time," said Diggins, who currently is ranked 37th overall in the World Cup standings. "But in the USA, we put them on such an incredible pedestal. For me, it's been more about the process.
"When I started out, what I really liked was the lifestyle. Just getting to train so much all year and be outside, and go to these amazing places and see them from an angle most people never get to. We're on the road, having fun, and we're doing things Americans have never done before. That's really cool."
That feeling extends to her parents, Clay and Deb Diggins, and her large network of fellow competitors, coaches and friends in the Twin Cities. Many of them already are making plans to travel to Sochi, but they also wake up at 4 a.m. every weekend to follow her World Cup races via the Internet.
"The U.S. ski team coach told her once that if you're going to do this, you'd better love the process," said Kris Hansen, Diggins' coach at Stillwater High School. "She loves the training, and she loves racing. It's not all about the Olympics for her. It would be great to see her make it, but we're already so proud."
Diggins began racing on the World Cup tour 13 months ago and has competed in 12 countries, mostly in Europe. Since making the U.S. team in 2011, she hasn't spent much time in the state where she got her first taste of the sport as a baby riding in her dad's backpack.
Her parents often took Jessie and her sister Mackenzie canoeing, camping and hiking, instilling a love for outdoor activities. They participated in citizen cross-country races and enrolled Jessie in the Minnesota Youth Ski League when she was 4; by the time she turned 6, she wanted to race.
She soon discovered she possessed both an appetite for challenges and an unusually tough constitution. Even now, she said, she isn't the fastest or the strongest skier on the course. But she has the strength of will to keep racing full-bore no matter how much she hurts, giving her a mental edge many competitors lack.
"This is a sport where a 10K might take 20 or 30 minutes, and I'm able to dig deep and suffer," Diggins said. "It sounds really awful and masochistic, but that feeling when you finish a race, when the endorphins come flooding in, you feel like you just accomplished something big. It's so worth it."
A big decision
After winning three state individual titles at Stillwater, Diggins chose to defer college enrollment for a year and devote herself to racing. She wanted to see whether she would still love it as a full-time pursuit, and her parents supported her ambition.
"Jessie is an all-in person," Deb Diggins said. "She isn't semi-committed to anything. Her goal was not just to make it, but to do very well."
Diggins won a national freestyle sprint title and competed at the world championships that year. Her success convinced her to give up her college eligibility and work toward making the U.S. A team. That happened last spring, after she won four more U.S. titles and earned six top-10 finishes in her first months on the World Cup tour.
In November, her ability to grind through pain helped earn a World Cup bronze medal in a 4x5-kilometer relay. Diggins anchored the relay and outsprinted a Norwegian racer in the final meters to capture her country's first World Cup relay medal. A posse of family and friends saw her and Randall make more history in Quebec; Diggins seized the lead in her final leg of a World Cup team sprint, barely avoided a crash and helped earn the U.S. its first team gold.
Her supporters plan to be in Sochi as well. Diggins is expected to make a U.S. women's team that could win its first Olympic medal in the sport, a prospect that will fuel her all-in spirit even as she relishes every stop along the way.
"I know there will be a lot of national pride and a feeling of accomplishment," she said. "But the expectations have changed. The bar has risen. We're going to have a lot of medal potential for Sochi. And that's really exciting."