The gold medals awarded at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics were the heaviest ever, weighing 20.6 ounces. Jessie Diggins didn’t notice it at first, when she stepped onto a podium in the South Korean mountains with her newly won prize around her neck.
She actually felt a little lighter that night in February, when she and American teammate Kikkan Randall won their country’s first Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing. But after the medal was hidden, Diggins began to understand its symbolic weight. Being an Olympic champion brought greater expectations and visibility, a burden that would only grow heavier as the Beijing Winter Games approached.
“There’s a lot of external pressure,” Diggins said. “But that doesn’t mean I have to feel it, does it?”
Over the past four years, Diggins has gotten stronger in every way. After writing her name in Olympic lore, the Afton native made history, winning the overall World Cup title and Tour de Ski crown last season. Diggins, 30, has also 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 in itself. Diggins, who hopes to compete in all six women’s events, has chosen not to see it that way. She considers it an honor, allowing her to put the weight of gold on her back and still ski faster than ever.
“It would be silly not to acknowledge the pressure or pretend it’s not a thing,” Diggins said. an incredible privilege to be able to withstand such pressure.
“I hope I can show that it’s entirely possible to come in and be yourself, to always care about the things you care about, to be a good teammate. And just focus on what you can control, and let the rest go.’
Going into her third Olympics, the Afton native is still happily rushing into the ‘cave of pain’, running so hard she nearly faints and tastes blood in her mouth. Diggins said his “baseline happiness” is higher than ever, making him a resilient athlete.
Her mother, Deb, believes Olympic gold has changed her perspective. Earlier in her career, Deb said, Jessie focused on getting the results she wanted. Since winning her historic medal, she’s been thinking more about how to use that gold to create 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 true legacy of her career.”
The Beijing Games offer another chance to build on this legacy. Diggins’ longtime personal trainer Jason Cork doesn’t usually make predictions about where she might end up.
Given his growth over the past four years, he was ready to make an exception.
“I think she could really pull it off,” Cork said. “Actually, I think there is an outside chance that she can win several medals. But I will be happy and proud of her anyway.”
A Higher Calling
Since the Pyeongchang Games, Diggins’ profile has steadily risen. She won 22 World Cup medals during that span, the most of any American 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 to win the overall World Cup championship.
Cork said she remains “the same old Jessie” in almost every way. She’s still the “sparkle fairy” of Team USA, brushing everyone’s cheeks with a pre-race glow to keep the mood fun. Despite being the veteran helmsman 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 a frequent frontrunner at games, movie nights, and “Ted Lasso” binges.
Matt Whitcomb, head coach of the U.S. cross country team, said it can be “a little scary for a program” when an athlete receives outsized attention and success. In the case of Diggins, this was not the case. It didn’t affect the team dynamics in any way.
“She stayed true to her personality,” Whitcomb said. “He’s someone who likes to share his successes. Jessie could win 15 Olympic medals on her own, and she wouldn’t enjoy it. She likes it because of the team around her.”
This team values her as a pioneer, role model and peer. Gus Schumacher, a first-time Olympian on the U.S. men’s team, said the whole squad has benefited from Diggins’ accomplishments.
“His success helps us all by bringing resources and attention,” Schumacher said. “And we’re all really excited for her. When she’s successful, it shows all of us, especially the younger guys on the team, that we can get there just by working hard. It makes it real.”
On the contrary, medals and championships pushed Diggins even harder. Cork said her willingness to suffer intense physical pain continues to set her apart. She also became more emotionally fearless, driven by the causes she embraced.
In 2020, Diggins released a memoir, “Brave Enough,” which detailed her struggle with an eating disorder. A patch on her ski cap 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 engages children in snow sports.
This advocacy has not always been easy. Diggins has received angry letters from climate change deniers. Writing her book required “a frightening vulnerability”, she said, drawing back the curtain on her private doubts and struggles.
But following a higher call made her even more willing to charge into the cave of pain.
“My focus from the start has been to try to grow the sport and do as much good as possible off the race track,” Jessie said. “The goal is to do more than just ski.
“This way, win, lose or draw, you’ve taken that time in the spotlight and made something of it. And it feels good.”
Diggins is set to start the first cross-country skiing event of the Beijing Games, the women’s skiathlon, on February 5. The only thing that could prevent him from participating in all six races is the weather. if it’s very cold, Diggins may skip an event.
The roadmap she and Cork have planned for this season is designed to culminate in Beijing. Although some athletes did not participate in the Tour de ski to rest, Diggins used this post-Christmas event – an eight-day, six-race event – to prepare for the Winter Games. This approach worked well for her in 2018, when she competed 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 lost him the top spot, a crash on stage four, still gave Diggins a boost. Instead of sulking the fall caused by a Swedish skier, Diggins brushed it off quickly and continued.
“To face challenges, to have things that you cannot control, you have to understand and readjust,” she said. “I had to sail a lot during this Tour. It gives me the confidence to know that I can do it, and that’s what I need to compete in the Olympics.”
Diggins’ father Clay said time and experience had made Jessie “more comfortable in her own skin”. She no longer overemphasizes each race, as she did in her youth.
His basic happiness continues to expand. With more than 240 World Cup events under her belt, Diggins relishes her place as the senior on the team, dispensing advice as eagerly as she receives it. She’s planning a spring wedding with her longtime boyfriend, Wade Poplawski, and she finds joy in simple acts like growing broccoli in her garden or baking elaborate cakes for her 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 can define what success looks like,’” Diggins said. “To me, success at the Games means crossing the finish line with nothing left in the tank. Be a good teammate. Do everything possible to prepare.
“If I can do all those things and say, ‘I gave it my all’, that will be a success for me. It would be great if it was a medal. It would be great if it wasn’t. the case.”