Bob Hagstrom knew this day would come when he saw her a decade ago when she was just in the seventh grade.
So did Kris Hansen and Ahvo Taipale. And Bill Simpson and the veritable army of supporters in the close-knit Nordic skiing community in the St. Croix Valley, all of whom were vital in smoothing Jessie Diggins’ path to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
As Diggins goes for gold half a world away Saturday, the legion will gather at Stillwater’s Chilkoot Cafe and Cyclery in the dim morning hours to cheer on the 22-year-old skiing star in the 4x5-kilometer relay, where she will ski the final leg as the U.S. team’s anchor.
As Diggins starts her medal quest at 4 a.m. Minnesota time, a special mutual bond will be renewed.
“It’s just amazing. Even people who don’t ski like to feel they’re a part of it, too,” said Simpson, a 37-year coaching veteran who helped build Stillwater Area High School, which has the largest Nordic skiing program in the nation, into a perennial powerhouse. “It’s not just that she’s a great athlete, but it’s what she’s like as a person. Everyone loves her. She has this gift — she knows how to reach out to other people to make them feel like they’re appreciated. It’s like she belongs to everybody.”
Volunteers like Hagstrom typify the quiet, behind-the-scenes support Diggins has enjoyed since she took to the sport as a 3-year-old.
For years, blankets have been Hagstrom’s thing, something that he has wrapped gently and in proud red-and-black Stillwater Ponies colors around the shoulders of countless local skiers, Diggins included, to keep them warm as they prepared to race. And just as he did when Diggins was on the team, he’s always been there at the finish line, ready with a hug of congratulation, or solace.
Diggins, Hagstrom said, was a pugnacious competitor, never giving an inch in a race.
As Stillwater’s girls’ coach, Hansen also played a key role in Diggins’ development, guiding her to three individual state skiing titles. The nurturing environment in which Diggins blossomed, she said, shows in her work ethic, her generosity and her grounded personality.
“Win or lose, at home or abroad, she knows she has a strong base of support,” Hansen said.
That extended team includes the coaches who nurtured her physical skills, so apparent even as a child; local business owners like the Chilkoot’s Lee Stylos, who helped raise money as Diggins’ Olympic aspirations grew — along with expenses — from dream to reality over the past three years; the many volunteers who work with young skiers, like Taipale, who grew up skiing on Finland’s frozen lakes and whose passion for the sport is infectious. And Hagstrom, an 83-year-old retired house builder who still races competitively.
At the waxing shack
In a low-ceilinged shed surrounded by woods in rural Grant, a fire roars in the cast-iron stove of “the ski waxing shack,” the pails of popcorn and cookies awaiting the arrival of Stillwater’s ski team.
The shack is Hagstrom’s old workshop, now converted for the exclusive task of preparing skis for racing. That means applying the right wax to the skis, based on temperature and snow conditions, that keeps them from slipping during a race. It’s a critical step, and for the chattering young skiers who start crowding in the shed’s warmth, a pre-race ritual — one Diggins experienced many times. It includes its own “Jessie board” of Diggins photos.
The local Nordic skiing tradition, which Diggins took to as a toddler with her family, runs deep in the area for a couple of reasons, Simpson said.
After a ski shop opened over the Marine General Store in Marine on St. Croix in about 1970, “the whole town got caught up in skiing, and the kids did, too,” Simpson said.
In Stillwater, he added, skiing is a major sport, and skiers are regarded on equal footing as football or basketball stars. There also is a plethora of nearby places to train, including William O’Brien and Afton state parks, Pine Point Regional Park and Lake Elmo Park Reserve, home base for the Ponies.
“There are a lot of people in the St. Croix Valley who really love cross-country skiing, and they want to give that love of the sport to the kids,” said Hansen.
It’s why so many are willing to sacrifice time and money without a second thought. Officially, Stillwater has three coaches — Hansen, Simpson and boys coach Torry Krafston. But there are about two dozen volunteer “technical coaches” who also help.
Simpson first encountered Diggins when she was a seventh-grader at Oak-Land Junior High in Lake Elmo.
“I saw it immediately,” he said of Diggins’ unique mix of physical skills and mental toughness.
“I told the other coaches, ‘We have someone special here.’ She had that attitude from Day One, you know that? She had that positive attitude and just worked so hard.”
Taipale saw that, too, when a 12-year-old Diggins was training on roller skis early one morning at Battle Creek Regional Park. Taipale, who runs the Finn Sisu ski and sporting goods shop in Lauderdale and who coached the University of Minnesota Gophers’ women to two national titles, runs summer skiing programs in which Diggins participated. That day, Diggins wiped out.
“When I came up to her, I will never forget this, she looked up at me and she said ‘You’re going to be stuck with me for a long time,’ ” Taipale said, of the angelic-looking girl with the tenacious personality.
Stylos, a California native and co-owner of the Chilkoot Cafe, the unofficial headquarters of the area’s Nordic skiing community, said Diggins came to the cafe three years ago hoping to put out buckets for patrons to drop in a few bucks to help her fund her way to the U.S. “B” skiing team and European training.
“I asked her, ‘What kind of money are we talking about?’ and she said ‘At least $20-$25,000,’ ” Stylos said. “My first thought was, ‘This isn’t going to work.’ ”
Instead, Stylos catered a fundraising dinner that brought in more than $10,000, an event repeated the following year when Diggins advanced to the “A” team, and then again last fall when she was bound for the Olympics. The event sells out quickly, Stylos said, but people just drop in to contribute.
“All I did was open the door, put some food out and said ‘Help Jessie,’ ” he said. “And they did; they came by the truckload. The passion is out there.”