PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Jessie Diggins got a poster of Olympic cross-country skier Bill Koch when she was a kid and hung it above her bed.
Koch won a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics, and Diggins idolized him. His poster still hangs in her bedroom at her parents’ Afton home.
Koch was the only American — man or woman — to own an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing until Wednesday night. Diggins hopes her image inspires the next generation of skiers, just as Koch did for her.
“Help them realize that it’s OK to dream super-big,” Diggins said. “And it’s OK to be brave enough to want those goals that seemed previously out of reach.”
Diggins and teammate Kikkan Randall smashed through that barrier with a historic performance Wednesday that officials with U.S Ski believe will be a game-changer for their sport.
Diggins and Randall became the first American women to medal in cross-country at the Olympics, winning gold in the team sprint. Diggins anchored the last leg and turned in a finish for the ages, overtaking Sweden’s Stina Nilsson with a late charge.
Roughly 14 hours later, Diggins was still trying to process the magnitude of their accomplishment while being whisked to various media appearances.
“It’s been overwhelming in the best way because I spent hours visualizing that race and every possible scenario,” she said. “I prepared for everything except for winning. So it’s a little bit like, ‘Well, what now?’ It’s been a total whirlwind and trying to process it all has been really fun. I’m sure one of these days it will sink in.”
When it eventually does, she might find that she helped spark a sea change in American cross-country skiing. U.S. women had not won a medal in cross country in 46 years of competing in the Olympics. They didn’t come close many years.
Randall is a five-time Olympian so she understands the struggles, sacrifice and hard work required to reach this point as well as anyone. She finished 44th in her only race at her first Olympics, in 2002 in Salt Lake City.
“I remember feeling so far from that podium and yet still feeling that glimmer of hope,” she said.
There is more than hope now. There’s tangible proof with their gold medal that Americans can compete with the best in the world. That sends a powerful message to young skiers in the U.S. program, or kids just picking up the sport.
“What’s really cool is, I don’t think we’re going to have to wait another decade for this to happen again,” Randall said. “The door has been opened. What I hope this gold medal really means is that those kids dream about being in this position someday, and they believe it’s possible.”
Diggins and the U.S. women’s team have one more opportunity to medal. Diggins is expected to compete in the women’s 30K mass start classic (Sunday at 12:05 a.m.).
U.S. Ski officials express excitement about the next wave of skiers. Americans won two medals at the junior world championships last year for the first time. They won three medals at the most recent junior worlds.
“We’re going to see this sport grow now for sure,” said Luke Bodensteiner, chief of sport for US Ski & Snowboard. “Kids are watching this, and they’re going to really get involved. This will create a pretty significant effect.”
Tom Kelly, US Ski & Snowboard spokesman, noted that “heroes really drive participation,” and Diggins’ dramatic finish will be their best selling point.
Diggins simply refused to be denied as she caught, then passed Nilsson on the final straightaway.
“When your teammate is waiting for you [at the finish line] and their dreams are on the line, as well as yours, that brings out the absolute best in me every single time,” Diggins said.
Diggins lives for that final kick. She said her body felt like a “coiling spring letting go” as she turned the final corner.
“I had all this energy stored up and was ready to give it everything I had,” she said.
She rehearsed that exact scenario during a team sprint simulation three weeks ago. She asked her coaches to jump in the race for the final 100 meters because she wanted them to have fresh legs when she didn’t.
“I was prepared to be able to pull out a gritty performance when it mattered most because we had practiced it,” she said. “It just took a lot of hard work and lot of sweat and a lot of belief.”