There are basically two ways to approach a Minnesota winter.
You can curse the cold from your couch, huddled under a pile of blankets while checking airfares to Aruba. Or you can take a cue from five celebrated women who flourish when the days grow short and the temperature plummets.
Our most forbidding season brings out the best in Lindsey Vonn, Jessie Diggins, Ann Bancroft, Winny Brodt Brown and Maggie Nichols. Like winter itself, they’re tough, persistent and awe-inspiring. They’re not afraid to lean into the headwinds. When they slip and fall, they get right back up.
Bancroft, the famed Arctic explorer, notes that even “winter people’’ can feel the urge to hibernate sometimes. Her antidote is to simply step outside and take a deep breath. “It’s transformative,’’ she says. “There’s just an exuberance about winter.’’ In other words: It is not a season meant to be spent on the couch. Even if you’re not chasing an Olympic medal or trekking across Antarctica, Minnesota’s women of winter show how empowering it is to charge headfirst into the season. Like them, you might discover you bloom brightest when everything is covered in snow.
Age: 35 // Hometown: Burnsville
Best known for: Winning 82 World Cup races, second only to Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark, and becoming the only American woman to win Olympic gold in the downhill. Vonn retired in February with three Olympic medals, eight world championships medals and a record 20 World Cup season titles.
Current status: The cumulative damage from multiple injuries forced Vonn off the slopes. She is expanding her business ventures and philanthropic activities, including the Lindsey Vonn Foundation, which enriches girls through sports and education. An HBO documentary, “Lindsey Vonn: The Final Season,”will premiere Nov. 26.
What’s next: Vonn is writing a memoir set for publication next spring, and her beauty line also will debut in 2020. She hasn’t set a date yet for her wedding to NHL star P.K. Subban, but she recently relocated from Vail, Colo., to join Subban in New Jersey.
Her Minnesota takeaway: In her early years at Burnsville’s Buck Hill, Vonn was so slow that coach Erich Sailer called her a turtle — but his guidance set her up for stardom. “I learned how to train hard and to be unconventional, to do things my own way,” she says. “When I got on the U.S. Ski Team, a lot of people told me my technique wasn’t good enough and that I should change the way I ski. Erich always said I was fast the way I am. So I took my own path. It showed you don’t have to be from the mountains to be a successful skier.”
On her legacy: “I don’t really want to be known as a skier. I want to be known for more than that. Going down the mountain was incredible, and I loved every second of it. But I think the best aspect of it is that it’s given me this platform to do good. That’s been the most meaningful part of my skiing career.”
Age: 64 // Hometown: St. Paul
Best known for: Bancroft has skied, sailed and mushed her way around the world’s coldest places, becoming the first woman to cross the ice to both the North and South Poles. Her adventures include a 1,717-mile journey across Antarctica with fellow explorer Liv Arnesen and a 1,000-mile trek to the North Pole with Will Steger.
Current status: As a child, Bancroft dreamed of exploring the North Pole. She now fuels the aspirations of other kids through her Ann Bancroft Foundation, which supplies mentors and financial grants to guide girls along their own paths of self-discovery. She’s also a popular speaker with a message of female empowerment, environmental stewardship and engaging with the natural world.
What’s next: More adventures await Bancroft and Arnesen, who currently are deciding the theme and location of their next expedition. The only certainties: it will be a big event, meant to inspire and educate.
Her Minnesota takeaway: Long before Bancroft took on the Arctic, she braved frigid nights in a sleeping bag, in the backyard of her family’s rural home near Mendota Heights. “Winter was long, snowy and wonderful,” she says. “I just headed out into the fields and pretended I was in the far reaches of the globe. When I was 10, I got some crazy idea that I wanted to sleep outside in the winter. I wanted to be like those early explorers. And even in a 30-below winter in the orchard out back, my parents let me do it. It was the very beginning of the thing I’m doing today.”
On embracing the season: “Winter is such a great season to play. But you have to be comfortable. When you’ve got a good pair of boots on and a warm jacket, it just opens up so much oxygen. And it’s fun. It just gives you a sense of energy, like summer doesn’t quite do.”
Age: 28 // Hometown: Afton
Best known for: Thrusting out her ski at the finish line to beat Sweden’s Stina Nilsson for a gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics. In one of the most dramatic moments of the Winter Games, Diggins chased down Nilsson in the final meters of the team sprint, combining with teammate Kikkan Randall to become the first Americans to win Olympic gold in cross-country skiing.
Current status: The top American on the World Cup circuit, Diggins will kick off the 2019-20 racing season on Nov. 29 in Ruka, Finland. She’s also an advocate for The Emily Program, a Minnesota-based center that treats eating disorders; Protect Our Winters, which raises awareness about climate change; and Fast and Female, which aims to get girls involved in sports.
What’s next: Diggins will spend most of the winter racing in Europe, with one notable exception. Her tireless lobbying helped bring a World Cup sprint to Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis on March 17. It’s the first World Cup event in the U.S. in 19 years, fulfilling Diggins’ longtime dream of competing on home snow.
Her Minnesota takeaway: A product of the Minnesota Youth Ski League and Stillwater High School’s Nordic team, Diggins learned early that winning isn’t everything. “The Minnesota ski community raised me and shaped me into the skier I am today,” she says. “There’s a deep-rooted sense of teamwork and camaraderie, racing not just to win, but for the fulfillment of working toward your goals. I’m able to enjoy the experience and see it as more than just, ‘I’m going to try to beat you.’ Combining that work ethic with friendliness, that stems from growing up in the Midwest.”
On fearlessness: “I’m known for being able to suffer during a race. That’s my trademark, that I can go and go and go until I turn myself inside out or pass out on the course. After the Olympics, I can’t remember how much pain I was in when I crossed the line. But I’m always going to remember that feeling of, ‘Wow. I pushed myself so much harder and did something that most people are scared to do. I went to a place that people are scared to go to.’ And that’s a cool feeling.”
Winny Brodt Brown
Age: 41 // Hometown: Roseville
Best known for: Part of the family that brought women’s professional hockey to Minnesota, Brodt Brown has played for the Minnesota Whitecaps since their inception in 2004. The former star for Roseville High School and the Gophers was the first girl to win the Ms. Hockey award as the state’s top high school player; now, she is the oldest player in the National Women’s Hockey League.
Current status: Brodt Brown is playing her final season for the Whitecaps. The team captain and mother of two young sons hopes to defend the NWHL championship the team won last spring.
What’s next: Though she’s closing out a 23-year run at the highest levels of women’s hockey, Brodt Brown isn’t leaving the ice. Her business, Os Hockey Training, is developing future generations of female players. When she’s not shuttling her boys to games and practices, she’s often conducting clinics to introduce women of all ages to the sport. Don’t rule out a comeback, either: Brodt Brown’s mom, Marlene Brodt, still plays amateur hockey at age 72.
Her Minnesota takeaway: There were no girls’ hockey leagues when Brodt Brown was a kid. Her father, Jack Brodt, thought the state’s game should be open to all, and his daughters were eager trailblazers. “Back in the day, girls could only play down in the park with their brothers,” she says. “My dad, I don’t know if he’s a visionary or what, but he says, ‘If the boys can play, why can’t my girls play?’ So he put my older sister into boys’ hockey at Roseville, then me, then (sister) Chelsey. It opened up a whole world to us.”
On longevity: “No matter your age, hockey is a great way to meet people, and it’s great for your overall health and well-being. I work with the Women’s Hockey Association of Minnesota. At our Hockey 101 clinics, we could have 18- to 60-year-olds on the ice with us, learning to play the game. People can play hockey a lot longer than you’d think. And I’d much rather go to hockey practice than go to the gym.”
Age: 22 // Hometown: Little Canada
Best known for: Winning two NCAA all-around championships and two national team titles at the University of Oklahoma, plus a gold medal in the team competition at the 2015 world championships. Nichols also was the first athlete to tell USA Gymnastics about abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar, who was convicted of sexually abusing hundreds of gymnasts; she earned the 2019 NCAA Inspiration Award for her courage.
Current status: In January, Nichols will begin her final season at Oklahoma. Her legacy already includes 17 perfect-10 scores, four national co-championships in three different events and 12 first-team All-America honors. She’ll vie for her third consecutive national all-around title, which would be an NCAA record.
What’s next: She plans to retire from competition at the end of the college season. After graduating in June with a degree in communications, she will pursue a master’s degree in sports broadcasting and hopes to land a job with a major network. Coaching college gymnastics could be in her future, too.
Her Minnesota takeaway: “Swaggie Maggie” credits her home state with giving her the encouragement to aim high. “A lot of people talk about ‘Minnesota nice,’ and that helped me become who I am,” she says. “When I was trying to make the world championships team and the Olympic team, I always felt so much love and support from people in Minnesota, even from people who didn’t know me. That’s something very special. It’s one reason I’m proud to be from Minnesota.”
On the lessons of gymnastics: “My sport taught me to be mentally tough, and to be independent. When you’re out there competing, you’re all alone. You have to figure things out on your own. And I was always a little daredevil in gymnastics, which carried into other parts of my life. Whenever I’ve been afraid to try something new outside of sports, I have that daredevil inside of me, pushing me to go ahead.”