Kris Hansen and her family were huddled around their computer in the middle of the night: watching, yelling, screaming and ultimately celebrating as they watched Jessie Diggins make history on the other side of the world.
Bill Simpson was in front of his computer too. He was alone, but screaming too.
Anne Hart was asleep.
Give her a break. She’s skiing in Saturday’s Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wis. She needs her rest. But when she woke up Wednesday morning, her phone had blown up. Her friend and training partner had won a gold medal.
“It was shocking,” Hart said, “but not surprising.”
Is that possible? Perhaps.
These are three stories of how friends of Diggins, the former Stillwater High star, reacted as she and teammate Kikkan Randall combined to win Olympic gold in the women’s team sprint. Hansen and Simpson are two of the three coaches of the Stillwater High team, who worked with Diggins while she was there and who have kept in close contact with her ever since. Hart is Diggins’ training partner, her teammate on the Stratton Mountain elite team in Vermont and a USA Olympic alternate who returned from Pyeonchang, South Korea, on Valentine’s Day to get ready for the Birkie.
Kikkan and Diggins are the first Americans to win an Olympic cross-country skiing gold medal. Ever.
Which only made what happened even more thrilling. Hansen will never forget watching Randall keeping the team close in the opening leg. Watching Diggins, along with Sweden’s Stina Nilsson and Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla, enter the final dash bunched together. Watching Diggins pass Caspersen Falla, making it a two-skier race.
Watching Diggins hunt down Nilsson in the final meters, winning by 0.19 of a second.
“It was just a drag race the final 150 meters,” Hansen said. “Oh, my gosh, we were just screaming our lungs out. So happy. So happy. It couldn’t happen to a better team.”
Simpson couldn’t help but recall all the times Diggins had anchored winning teams, coming from behind to win, starting in high school. “I’ve seen this for years,” Simpson said. “But this is my favorite finish, ever.”
Said Hart: “That was classic Jessie. When things seem the most impossible, she comes through. She has a full heart and clear eyes. She goes for it. She doesn’t stop until she’s across the line. It was incredible.”
There was talk of having a viewing party at Stillwater’s Chilkoot Café. Friends of Diggins — including current members of the Stillwater girls’ ski team that won the state high school meet last week — have done that before; they all got together to watch Diggins finish fifth in the skiathlon earlier in these Olympics. But it was midweek, there was work and school and …
“In hindsight, we should have done it,” Simpson said.
But Diggins’ hometown of Afton is making plans for when she returns stateside.
No date has been set, and the specifics haven’t been finalized, but the town plans a “Jessie Diggins Day” sometime soon.
“There is an event, a celebration that is being planned,” said Ron Moorse, Afton’s city administrator. “I’m not sure yet what it will all involve. We had been talking about it anyway. When she won the gold, I don’t think anyone got any sleep last night. We were all calling each other, saying, ‘We have to have a celebration for her.’ ”
A day will be chosen after Diggins and her family are consulted. Moorse also said Selma’s Ice Cream Parlour in Afton will be coming out with a Diggins-themed flavor in her honor.
Diggins has stayed in touch with the Stillwater team. She sent a text from South Korea last week before the Ponies won the team title. On Wednesday, the texts were headed the other way.
The wait is over
So how can you be shocked by something, but not surprised?
“Well, the duo of Kikkan and Jessie is amazing,” Hart said. “But everything has to come together just right at the highest level. It’s shocking because any time you win, come from behind like that, you can’t help but be shocked. But this has been a long time coming for those two.”
Hart has seen the growth of the sport in the United States for years, from youth skiers to Olympic hopefuls. “The level of skiing here is so much higher,” Hart said. “This medal is a testament to that, to all the athletes, the communities, the sponsors. This is an affirmation of the blood, sweat and tears.”
Diggins and Randall had won the world championship in the event back in 2013; Hansen can remember watching that race with her family, too. But is the first Olympic medal, only the second for USA Nordic skiing ever and the first since Bill Koch won silver in 1976. This will reverberate throughout the sport in this country for years.
“He may be forgotten a bit now,” Simpson said of Koch. “But he was a hero to American skiers for many years. Our initial youth ski lead was named after him. Now it’s Jessie’s turn.”
Said Hart: “It will show everyone that it’s possible. What’s amazing is, putting in the hundreds of thousands of hours, how that work can pay off in a few minutes. And it happened at the Olympics, with everyone watching. World championship medals are amazing. But it’s nothing compared to Olympic medals. This will motivate the next generation.”
Randall leads the way
Here’s what Hansen thinks makes this even more special: the Randall-Diggins team. At 35, Randall is the woman who helped put USA Nordic skiing on the map. Diggins, 26, is the young star.
“Kikkan put the team on this path to where we can compete on the world level,” Hansen said.
Hart agreed. “Kikkan has done so much for women’s cross-country skiing. She was out there before anyone thought it was possible for American women to be competitive. She led the charge. It’s cool that Kikkan, in her last Olympics, to still be leading that charge.”
It won’t be the last Olympics for Diggins, though.
This year brought American women their first medal in this sport, but likely not the last.
“You never take Olympic moments for granted, ever,” Hart said. “But I’m pretty sure Jessie has plans for a couple more Olympics. If I was a betting person, I’d bet on Jessie winning a few more.”