There would have been no sense in letting a beautiful day go to waste. Though Tuesday’s World Cup cross-country ski races were canceled last week, Jessie Diggins showed up at Theodore Wirth Park anyway, with silver glitter on her cheeks and a smile on her face.
Were it not for the coronavirus pandemic, the Olympic gold medalist from Afton would have been facing her global rivals in a freestyle sprint. As many as 20,000 spectators were expected to line the course, clanging cowbells to welcome World Cup cross-country racing back to America after a 19-year absence. Instead, Diggins zipped around the snowy loop with a group of high school girls, to a soundtrack of clanks and bangs as workers disassembled the grandstand.
It wasn’t how she envisioned a day she had worked toward for two years. But it wasn’t a total loss, either.
“On Sunday, I met a volunteer who had been at The Trailhead practically every day for the last year, working on this,” Diggins said. “And he looked at the stadium, and he said, ‘Well, we did it!’ And I was like, ‘You’re right. We did.’
“Even though the starting gun isn’t going to go off, we did it. We got so many people excited about skiing. You don’t have to look hard or far for a silver lining, because there are about a million of them.”
The Loppet Foundation, which organized the races, has told the International Ski Federation it is interested in hosting World Cups in 2022 and 2024. But the cancellation caused a significant financial loss. According to Loppet Foundation executive director John Munger,the group raised between $1.7 million and $1.8 million toward the event’s $2.5 million budget; it was counting on ticket sales to cover the rest.
Munger said he is “really concerned about the finances,” and the Loppet Foundation will need to “assess where we’re at” before officially launching another bid. Though the money could be an issue, the collective will to move forward is not.
“If we’re going to try and do it again, we’re going to have to feel like we can figure (the finances) out,” Munger said. “But there are a lot of things that are positive.
“People poured their heart and soul into this. And I haven’t heard a single one say they’re not up for doing it again two years from now. This was about bringing people here and showing off what we can do, and being part of something big. That’s not going away.”
The World Cup course was open to the public Tuesday, and plenty of people who would have been watching or volunteering at the races came out to ski. On a day that would have been ideal for international competition — temperature around 40, bluebird sky, light wind — Diggins led a workout for about 15 girls, including some sprints to the finish line alongside what was left of the grandstand.
She laughed as she powered across a bridge, chased by young skiers with American flags tucked into their headbands. Diggins got all the tears out of her system last week. When she got word that the races were called off, she was at her parents’ home in Afton, a good place for a good cry.
Diggins, 28, has wanted to bring a World Cup event to the U.S. since she joined the circuit in 2011. Told it would take a “winning-the-Olympics-type” spark to make it happen, she went out and won an Olympic gold medal in 2018, with Kikkan Randall in the team sprint.
Only a few weeks after those Olympics in South Korea, Diggins spent a whirlwind weekend in the Twin Cities, selling her vision to political leaders, corporate executives and civic boosters.
“She didn’t just give a little nod to this,” Munger said. “She put everything she had into it. Without that, there’s just no way.”
After the cancellation, it didn’t take long for Diggins to see the first silver linings. People instantly began contacting her via text, phone and social media, sharing her sadness. Diggins took that as a sign that people cared intensely about the World Cup, enough to make another try worthwhile.
The Loppet Foundation has submitted a preliminary bid to host the three-day World Cup Finals in 2022, and Munger anticipates the group will go ahead with that plan. Though the races didn’t happen, the planning period built strong relationships with the International Ski Federation and US Ski & Snowboard, and organizers learned how to put together a World Cup event.
Munger said 10,000 tickets had been sold, and 900 volunteers had signed up. Many already have confirmed they are ready to try again, and Munger said feedback from sponsors and civic organizations also has been positive.
“People could see the vision come to life,” he said. “Seeing the dream put together has cemented for people just how ready we were, and how wonderful an event this will be when we finally do make it happen.”
The coronavirus still cast a bit of a shadow over Wirth Park on Tuesday, as Diggins was careful to remind skiers to keep their distance from one another. The enthusiasm of those on the course helped her realize that one of her goals for a local World Cup event — generating more interest in the sport — was achieved, even without a race.
Like her, they weren’t about to waste good snow on a beautiful day.
“All the hard work wasn’t for nothing,” she said. “We should and can have this event again. I really believe it’s going to be amazing.’’