As the snow began to fall in Falun, Sweden, Jessie Diggins pondered the hours of training and preparations that led her to Tuesday’s race at the Nordic skiing world championships. The Afton native and her teammate, Caitlin Gregg of Minneapolis, entered as underdogs to the mighty Scandinavians — and still, she couldn’t help but feel a medal was within her grasp.
“I was thinking during warmups, ‘Why not me?’ ’’ Diggins said. “I’m just going to go out and give it everything I have, and maybe that will be enough for something amazing.’’
Diggins and Gregg went one better. They accomplished something historic, becoming the first American women to medal in a distance event at the Nordic world championships. Diggins earned a silver medal in the 10-kilometer freestyle and Gregg took the bronze, setting off cheers that stretched from Sweden to Stillwater as the U.S. put two athletes on the podium in an individual race for the first time in the event’s history.
As parents Clay and Deb Diggins watched via the Internet from their home in Afton, Jessie, a 2014 Olympian, finished the race in 25 minutes, 49.8 seconds. Gregg, who competed in the 2010 Olympics, crossed the line in 25:55.7. Charlotte Kalla of Sweden won the gold by a 41-second margin.
Cross-country skiers in Minnesota and around the U.S. rejoiced at the result. In the 90-year history of the Nordic world championships, Americans had won only three medals in cross-country events.
Few expected them to collect two on Tuesday. Gregg, 34, persevered through a bout with shingles last fall and earned her first top-10 finish in an international event. Diggins, 23, nearly fell as she entered the stadium but charged through the heavy snow to medal in what she called the best race of her life.
“Dreaming big is a motto my husband, Brian, and I use a lot with the kids we work with in north Minneapolis,’’ said Gregg, who runs programs for at-risk youths. “It’s all true right now. Keeping those dreams alive is the most important thing, because it can all come together for you.’’
Diggins has written U.S. cross-country history before. A state champion during her days at Stillwater High School, she teamed with Kikkan Randall to win a gold medal at the 2013 world championships in the team sprint, the first time the U.S. had won that event. She and Randall also won the first-ever American gold in the team sprint at a World Cup event.
Though the U.S. was expected to medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Diggins’ best finish was an eighth place in the skiathlon. Strong training and e-mails of support from home lifted her confidence Tuesday, and she and Gregg got an advantage from skis perfectly prepared by U.S. technicians for the tricky conditions.
Brian Gregg, a 2014 Olympian, traveled to Sweden so he could help his wife plot strategy and get into the proper mind-set. Caitlin was among the early starters and skied a smooth, consistent race, while Diggins started after light snowfall had turned heavy. As Diggins powered around the course, she could hear her coaches and American supporters hollering encouragement, which kept her going despite aching legs and heaving lungs.
When Diggins took the silver medal, her mom back home was overcome. “I grabbed my husband’s hand, and I was shaking,’’ Deb Diggins said. “There is no way to describe the thrill of seeing the joy on Jessie’s face.’’
With relatives fielding a flood of congratulations Tuesday, the athletes themselves said the enormity of their accomplishment was still sinking in hours after the race.
“It is an unbelievable day,’’ Diggins said. “It came as the best surprise ever to end the day with a silver medal at the world championships and be able to make history alongside Caitlin. It’s just been really, really cool.’’