The gold medals awarded at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics were the heaviest ever, weighing in at 20.6 ounces. Jessie Diggins didn't notice it at first, when she stood on a podium in the South Korean mountains with her newly won prize around her neck.

She actually felt a bit lighter that February night, when she and U.S. teammate Kikkan Randall won their country's first Olympic gold in cross-country skiing. But after the medal was stashed away, Diggins began to understand its symbolic weight. Being an Olympic champion brought greater expectations and higher visibility, a load that would only get heavier as the Beijing Winter Games approached.

Or not.

"There is a lot of external pressure,'' Diggins said. "But that doesn't mean I have to feel it, right?''

Over the past four years, Diggins has become stronger in every way. After writing her name in Olympic lore, the Afton native made more history, capturing a World Cup overall title and Tour de Ski crown last season. Diggins, 30, also has become a leading athlete voice on climate change and eating disorders, and an advocate for youth sports and healthy lifestyles.

Being a medal favorite in Beijing could be a burden all its own. Diggins, who hopes to race in all six women's events, has chosen not to see it that way. She views it as an honor, allowing her to put the weight of gold on her back and still ski faster than ever.

"It would be silly to not acknowledge the pressure, or pretend it's not a thing,'' Diggins said. "But for me, the key has been flipping it around and reframing it as, 'What a cool place to be in. What an amazing privilege to get to carry this amount of pressure.'

"Hopefully, I can show it's totally possible to come in and still be yourself, still care about the things you care about, be a good teammate. And just focus on what you can control, and let the rest go.''

Entering her third Olympics, the Afton native still rushes joyfully into the "pain cave,'' racing so hard she nearly blacks out and tastes blood in her mouth. Diggins said her "baseline happiness'' is higher than ever, making her a more resilient athlete.

Her mother, Deb, believes the Olympic gold altered her perspective. Earlier in her career, Deb said, Jessie focused on getting the results she wanted. Since winning her historic medal, she has thought more about how to use that gold to create a lasting impact.

"It was a watershed moment for her,'' Deb Diggins said. "It gave her the opportunity to grow the sport and inspire others, and she found her voice as an advocate. She came to understand that would be the real legacy of her career.''

The Beijing Games present another chance to build on that legacy. Diggins' longtime personal coach, Jason Cork, usually doesn't make predictions about where she might finish.

Given her growth over the past four years, he was willing to make an exception.

"I think she could be really successful,'' Cork said. "Realistically, I think there's an outside chance she could medal multiple times. But I'll be happy and proud of her either way.''

A higher calling

Since the Pyeongchang Games, Diggins' profile has continued to rise. She has won 22 World Cup medals in that span, the most of any U.S. athlete, and added to her long list of milestones. Last season, Diggins became the first American to win the Tour de Ski — a prestigious multi-stage race in Europe — and the first American woman to capture the World Cup overall championship.

Cork said she remains "the same old Jessie'' in nearly every way. She's still the U.S. team's "glitter fairy,'' swiping everyone's cheeks with pre-race sparkle to keep the mood fun. Though she's the veteran rudder of a young team, with 10 first-time Olympians, Diggins doesn't take herself too seriously; she recently made her first Tik Tok dance video, and she's often the ringleader for games, movie nights and "Ted Lasso'' binges.

Matt Whitcomb, head coach of the U.S. cross-country team, said it can be "a little bit of a scary thing for a program'' when one athlete gets an outsized amount of attention and success. In Diggins' case, it hasn't affected the team dynamic at all.

"She stayed true to her personality,'' Whitcomb said. "She is somebody who likes to share her successes. Jessie could win 15 Olympic medals by herself, and she would not enjoy it. She enjoys it because of the team that surrounds her.''

That team appreciates her as a trailblazer, role model and peer. Gus Schumacher, a first-time Olympian on the U.S. men's team, said the entire group has benefited from Diggins' achievements.

"Her success helps all of us by bringing in resources and attention,'' Schumacher said. "And we're all really excited for her. When she does well, it shows all of us, especially the younger ones on the team, that we can do it just by working hard. It makes it real.''

If anything, the medals and championships have made Diggins push even harder. Cork said her willingness to suffer through intense physical pain continues to set her apart. She's become more fearless emotionally as well, driven by the causes she's embraced.

In 2020, Diggins released a memoir, "Brave Enough,'' that detailed her struggle with an eating disorder. A patch on her ski hat promotes The Emily Program, the Minnesota-based group that helped her overcome bulimia. She serves as an ambassador for Protect Our Winters, which raises awareness of climate change, and Share Winter Foundation, which gets kids involved in snow sports.

That advocacy hasn't always been easy. Diggins has received angry letters from climate-change deniers. Writing her book required "a scary vulnerability,'' she said, pulling back the curtain on her private doubts and struggles.

But following a higher calling has made her even more willing to charge into the pain cave.

"My goal all along has been to try to grow the sport, and to do as much good outside the racetrack as I possibly could,'' Jessie said. "The goal is to make it about more than just skiing.

"That way, win, lose or draw, you've taken this time with the spotlight, and you did something with it. And that feels good.''

Defining success

Diggins is expected to start in the first cross-country event of the Beijing Games, the women's skiathlon on Saturday. The only thing that could prevent her from competing in all six races is the weather; if it is bitterly cold, Diggins might skip an event.

The road map she and Cork planned for this season is designed to peak in Beijing. Though some athletes sat out the Tour de Ski in order to rest, Diggins used that post-Christmas event — an eight-day, six-race grind — to build fitness for the Winter Games. That approach worked well for her in 2018, when she raced in all six Olympic events and finished in the top seven each time.

She was unable to defend her Tour de Ski title, finishing eighth overall. But the incident that knocked her out of the top spot, a crash in the fourth stage, still gave Diggins a boost. Instead of sulking over the fall, caused by a Swedish skier, Diggins brushed it off quickly and pressed on.

"Going through challenges, having things happen that you can't control, you have to figure it out and readjust,'' she said. "I had to navigate a lot during this Tour. That gives me the confidence to know I can do it, and that's what I need going into the Olympics.''

Diggins' father, Clay, said time and experience have made Jessie "more comfortable in her own skin.'' She no longer puts an outsized importance on every race, as she did in her younger days.

Her baseline happiness continues to expand. With more than 240 World Cup events on her resume, Diggins relishes her place as a team elder, dispensing advice as eagerly as she once received it. She is planning a spring wedding to longtime boyfriend Wade Poplawski, and she finds joy in simple acts such as growing broccoli in her garden, or baking elaborate cakes for teammates' birthdays.

She knows there will be pressure to win another Olympic medal in Beijing. But that doesn't mean she has to feel it.

"It's so important to say, 'I get to define what success looks like,' '' Diggins said. "For me, success at the Games means crossing the finish line with nothing left in the tank. Being a good teammate. Doing everything possible to prepare.

"If I can do all those things and go, 'I gave it everything I had,' that will be success to me. It would be great if that's a medal. It will be fine if it isn't.''