Bill Koch was pretty jazzed as he watched the 2018 Olympic women’s team sprint final from his home in Vermont.
Koch’s victories in the 1970s put cross-country ski racing on the radar in the United States, but the sport remained niche. The important races, the stars, and the fans were European. But 2018 was different. The U.S. women had built a solid, deep team. Jessie Diggins, of Afton and teammate Kikkan Randall had won a world championship title in 2013, but so far had fallen agonizingly short of the big one — an Olympic podium finish. This was their last shot at a medal — the team sprint. Inch by lung-searing inch, Diggins pulled ahead of a Swedish skier, her outstretched ski crossing the line for Team USA’s first Olympic gold in Nordic skiing.
“It is telling all the would-be skiers that it’s possible and it’s happening right now,” Koch told FasterSkier back in 2018. “There are so many more women right there with [Diggins and Randall]. This could be the start of an era.”
That the Olympic gold medal was attached to a homegrown athlete — a talented, effervescent, social media-savvy force of nature — has had a profound effect in Minnesota. You could call it the Diggins Effect. Hard to measure or categorize, the Diggins Effect can be felt at every level of the sport, but also in retail, in health counseling and corporate boardrooms. More kids are skiing, more young people are seeing how their dreams could become reality, and for the first time in 19 years, U.S. fans will be able to catch the excitement of a World Cup race live. Not just Anywhere USA, but in Minneapolis, at Theodore Wirth Park, on March 17. There are lots of people working to make these things happen, but the idea, the momentum, the spark of energy — that’s the Diggins Effect.
‘Ski like Jessie’
Backpacked by her skiing parents, Diggins officially started her skinny-ski career at age 4 with the Minnesota Youth Ski League, a nonprofit that teaches kids 4 to 14 how to ski, through local volunteer-run clubs. Now, Diggins is the MYSL poster child, with a blog on their website and thousands of snowpanted kids who want to “ski like Jessie.”
“After Jessie’s Olympic gold in 2018, we predicted a bump in our competitive program,” said Amy Cichanowski, MYSL executive director. “What we didn’t expect was the jump in the introductory program, people coming to us saying they wanted to start a new club.”
That fall, MYSL enrolled 10 new clubs and 1,000 kids new to the ski league, a 35 % increase. The organization posted another huge jump in numbers in 2019 — eight new clubs, overall 3,000 children (and their parents) in clubs throughout Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.
“Jessie’s not shy about how she started skiing. She mentions MYSL in almost all her interviews,” Cichanowski said. “Normally, we saw 7 % growth year to year. The 35 % — that’s Jessie.”
About five years ago, when Diggins started traveling the World Cup circuit, Cichanowski asked her to write a blog geared to the MYSL’s under-14 crowd.
“It’s my favorite thing,” Cichanowski said. “She talks about trying new foods, traveling, meeting people — the most important things for kids to know about being a pro skier. They see that she’s not super results-oriented, that she’s still having fun.”
Diggins is a rare combination of an uber-hardworking, talented athlete, and a bubbly, outgoing, relatable social media star. Those traits are thin on the ground in cross-country skiing, where most pros are introverted, focused people not comfortable in front of the camera. Training hard and skiing fast is not enough — now pro athletes need to engage with fans and promote themselves, their sport, and their sponsors. And that’s where Diggins truly excels. Heart-to-heart blogs, dance videos, Instagram posts — she makes skiing fun and tough and cool. Fans want to be a part of that, and so do sponsors.
“In the past, you could work hard for 10 years, eating tuna fish out of your minivan, and if you won a gold medal, it wouldn’t mean that much. No one knew about it, and who wants to live like that?” Cichanowski said. “Jessie is showing kids what a healthy, happy, pro ski career can look like. She’s showing them what the ultimate pathway is for skiers in the U.S.”
A vital part of that pathway is the opportunity to see the highest level of the sport — a World Cup race. “She’s very dedicated to making that event happen,” Cichanowski said.
The real Diggins Effect is not just more kids in the sport, but more kids starting young. Research shows, Cichanowski said, that high school, when most kids traditionally entered the sport, is too late for skill development.
“With more kids starting at a younger age, and learning better technique, we’ll start to see better skills and better results at the competitive level,” she said.
Bruce Adelsman is the founder of the Skinnyski website — a magnet for skiers — and longtime fan of the sport.
Adelsman said in an e-mail that Diggins and Randall “put Nordic skiing for the U.S. back on the map.
“Bill Koch’s victories back in the ’70s truly transformed the sport and kicked off the modern era of Nordic skiing. But Jessie has restored pride to the U.S. squad, and took it all to a higher level by proving Americans can compete with the world’s best athletes, especially the Norwegians (the Kenyans of Nordic skiing). She’s helped increase interest in the sport and made the juniors believe they might be the ‘next Jessie.’ I don’t think there is a single top high school skier, girl or boy, that would deny that Jessie has made a huge impact on their career,” he said.
Since 1936, when boys’ Nordic skiing results were first recorded by the Minnesota State High School League, and 1976 for girls, Minnesota has led the nation, by a wide margin, in the number of high school participants, even if it had to look to Europe for its inspiration. Having a hometown hero bumped already stout numbers modestly: The high school league counted 1,505 boys and 1,905 girls in 2010; 2,041 boys, and 2,474 girls in 2019. There have always been more girls in the sport than boys.
Ahvo Taipale is the owner of Finn Sisu ski shop in Lauderdale and has coached masters and juniors at the club level, including Diggins.
“Jessie definitely has had a positive effect,” Taipale said. “More kids in MYSL and in high school programs translates into retailing, for sure. Her influence in the U.S. and worldwide has been very strong, but I would say the greatest evidence of a Diggins Effect is that even though the winters have been bad here in the Midwest, sometimes little snow until February, the number of skiers is still growing.”
Diggins attended Stillwater High School, and like many Nordic athletes, skied for her high school team and in junior national meets at the same time because the seasons overlap. Kristen Hansen, who coaches the Stillwater girls’ Nordic team, said the Ponies have been on the Diggins bandwagon since she was on the team 2004 through 2010.
“Obviously, the  Olympics was huge, but honestly, Stillwater has been gaga for Jessie for a long time,” Hansen said. “She went right from high school to the U.S. ski team, then won gold at the 2013 world championship. She’s broken so many barriers for U.S. skiers — we probably talk about her every week.”
The Diggins Effect at Stillwater is not so much about her medals or her training, but rather her openness about her struggle with eating disorders, about body image, and about life balance.
“She’s made high school athletes, and parents, aware of the huge mental component of skiing and body image,” Hansen said. “We talked about that when Jessie was on the team, and her victories since have just made the dialogue that much richer. We have a hard time talking about maintaining a strong and healthy body in sport, so there’s huge value in her willingness to bring that out. Things she continues to talk about — the importance of strength training, cross training, mental training, developing a healthy life balance — that’s what I see as the Diggins Effect. She takes her responsibility [as a role model] seriously. It’s exactly what young people need.”
Inspiring kids to take up skiing and love their biceps is one thing; inspiring business people to part with considerable sums of money to put on a ski race is quite another.
“Hosting a World Cup race is an expensive thing to do. In Europe, governments pay a good chunk of it, but here, it’s sponsorship,” said John Munger, executive director of the Loppet Foundation. “The U.S. team was doing OK, but until Jessie came along, there wasn’t the momentum that you need to get sponsors and make it work financially. I’m not sure there’d be a World Cup race in the U.S. without that momentum.”
The last time a World Cup race was held in the states was 2001, as a trial run for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Jealous of the Canadian skiers competing in front of a hometown crowd at a 2017 World Cup race, Diggins envisioned a similar experience for Americans. Not just a thought, she acted. Later that spring, she contacted the Loppet Foundation with the idea of hosting a World Cup race in Minneapolis. The Loppet Foundation, in turn, called U.S. Ski & Snowboard about this admittedly mammoth project.
The Loppet had worked on the trails in Wirth Park to make them World Cup compliant. They had the infrastructure, the snow-making equipment and the location — Minneapolis is home to a number of multinational corporations that could conceivably sponsor a World Cup event.
“Still, the financials were daunting, and there was not a ton of momentum,” Munger said. “Then Jessie and Kikkan won the gold medal, and the next day we called USSA and said, ‘Now’s the time.’ Soon after, Jessie spoke at a meeting of business leaders in Minneapolis. She’s incredibly fast on skis but even more talented in talking to people. She’s very inspirational, very charismatic. I think everybody recognizes Jessie is a huge star and the driving force behind the World Cup being here.”
Clearly, the groundwork for Diggins’ success was laid by countless coaches, parents and athletes before her. In fact, her parents were volunteer leaders of the Willow River (Wis.) MYSL club where she started out. High school and junior national programs provided plenty of opportunity for competition, and local pros like Caitlin and Brian Gregg demonstrated such a life was possible.
Of any place in the country, Minnesota was poised for a new era of cross-country skiing. All that was needed was a push. In flew Diggins.
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer. She lives in St. Paul.
What: The World Cup cross-country ski competition, featuring Diggins, comes to the United States for the first time in 19 years.
When/where: March 17 Theodore Wirth Park, Minneapolis
Details: The World Cup arrives for sprint races. The Fastenal Parallel 45 Winter Festival, a related celebration, begins March 14 and runs through March 17. There will be citizen races, too, a music festival, and more. Ticket information at loppet.org/events/parallel45.
Memoir release and events: Diggins will have a book launch for her new memoir, "Brave Enough" from University of Minnesota Press, from 3-5 p.m. April 5 at Stillwater High School. Details here. Diggins will be at a second book event May 9 at Wordplay, the literary festival, in Minneapolis. Details here.