Jessie Diggins smiled and laughed at times during her Zoom conference call on Monday. She talked about Taylor Swift songs, posting dance routines on TikTok and her fondness for glitter. She eloquently answered questions as the FIS World Cup season opens this week in Finland.
In February, the Afton native became the first U.S. cross-country skier to win an individual world title. So it seemed as if all systems were go for one of the most decorated skiers in U.S. history — she owns three Olympic medals, six World Championship medals — to chase more glory.
But the run-up to the season has not been smooth for Diggins. Not by a long shot.
As a teenager, she beat back bulimia, which can lead to several physical ailments, some life-threatening. In September, she shared in an Instagram post that, after 12 years of defeating the eating disorder, she had experienced a relapse this summer.
She had been putting too much pressure on herself to keep the machine that is her career and her life running perfectly. She is involved in several projects and is on several boards representing her various interests. On top of constant elite-level training, her appointment book was full, perhaps overflowing.
When this summer she found herself "not in a good place," Diggins said, she reached out for help and her support team was activated. With its assistance, Diggins is ready to deal with the challenges of the grueling cross-country skiing season.
Getting through the season, however, will require a change: She won't commit to appearing at every race on the circuit. Diggins, 32, will handle what she can handle with her mental health prioritized.
"I'm focusing on just doing my best and taking it one day at a time and one race at a time," Diggins said Monday. "I'm not making promises for the whole season. I'm not putting out results goals. I'm not promising that I'm going to be there at every single weekend. I'm just focusing on one day at a time and having a happy and healthy season as the priority."
That could affect her participation in a historic event in the Twin Cities. Thanks to Diggins' lobbying, a World Cup race will be held at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis Feb. 17-19, the first such event on U.S. soil in more than 20 years. That would put Diggins on center stage in her hometown, where some of her friends and family have not seen her race since she was 19. It's hard to believe Diggins would only be an ambassador and not a participant that week, but that decision doesn't need to be made now.
"It's gonna be hard because I want to give everyone everything that they're hoping for," she said. "I want to high-five every single person, because we worked so hard to make this happen, and I know that I can't. So I think I just have to find a way to say I'm doing the best I can and that's going to have to be enough."
It would be a shame if she is unable to participate. But, as Diggins said Monday, mental health is physical health. And as much as we like to think our favorite athletes are built to be invincible — or perform like they are — they are susceptible to mental health challenges like folks from all walks of life.
In recent years, athletes such as Kevin Love, Brandon Marshall, Michael Phelps and Naomi Osaka have spoken up about their mental health struggles. Gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the all-around competition in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 to prioritize her mental health. As Diggins competed in the Beijing Olympics in 2022, teammate Mikaela Shiffrin was dealing with anxiety and panic attacks while being disqualified in three races.
Diggins' indomitable will is evident every moment she's on a course. Her workout regimen is legendary. She's also not perfect. And Diggins, who for years has talked openly about her eating disorder to help others, is the latest to speak up about it to promote more open discussions about mental health. She's received many supportive messages following her admission.
She could have stopped competing and walked away from a stellar career. She could have announced a temporary break from the sport. But Diggins doesn't believe she has peaked yet.
What's less of a concern is that revealing her relapse and challenges will be viewed as weakness or inadequacy by her peers, coaches or the public. She should be and will be applauded for her courage.
"Once I realized that 'OK, I'm not in a good place,' I needed to reach out to my support team," she said. "And we spent the last 12 years continuously weaving this safety net so it was there in case I needed it."