Three months after she captivated the country with the biggest moment in the history of U.S. cross-country skiing, Jessie Diggins sat on the back porch of a Bend condo, reflecting on the recent whirlwind that has been her life.
If anybody can take the momentum from a gold medal and bring cross-country skiing into the mainstream in the United States, Diggins can, it seems. The smart, engaging and determined 26-year-old from Afton, Minnesota, has lofty goals outside of ski racing.
But first, back to that moment during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Feb. 21, when Diggins edged out Sweden’s Stina Nilsson to the finish line to win the team sprint with teammate Kikkan Randall — the first Olympic gold medal ever for the U.S. in cross-country skiing.
“Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins! … Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! … GOLD!”
The call from NBC’s Chad Salmela captured arguably the most memorable moment for the U.S. at the Pyeongchang Games, and it still brings goosebumps three months later.
And now, here comes Diggins, indeed.
She is currently in Central Oregon with the U.S. Ski Team’s cross-country squad for its first training camp of the season. The team comes for training at Mt. Bachelor ski area every year in late May, and this marks Diggins’ eighth time in Bend for the camp.
Earlier this week, fresh off a morning of skiing at Bachelor, she talked about her life since winning the gold medal, her love of Central Oregon, and her new role as a sort of ambassador for her sport.
“I don’t want my entire life to be defined by those 16 minutes,” Diggins said of the team sprint gold. “That would be so sad to never accomplish anything more than that. Starting a foundation to support kids skiing, or getting a World Cup to come to Minneapolis, that would be more meaningful and would inspire so many kids. I want to focus on making myself a good role model by what I do when I’m not skiing.”
Diggins — who carried the American flag while leading the U.S. team at the closing ceremonies in Pyeongchang — and some of her teammates will speak in Bend on Friday at “An Evening of Champions,” a sold-out event at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon. Proceeds from the event go directly to the U.S. cross-country team.
After the Olympics, Diggins and Randall (who announced her retirement shortly after the games), traveled to New York for promotional events. A two-time Olympian with four world championship medals, Diggins notes that she has raced in 150 World Cup events, and not one of them in the U.S. This spring, she looked for partnerships and sponsors in Minneapolis, and she secured a tentative bid for March 2020.
“I think it’s so cool seeing how much the sport is growing, how many kids are just so pumped up about skiing,” Diggins said. “For me the best thing has been seeing the ripple effect of this medal, from the whole team. It took the entire team working together to give us the shot at the medal, and the cool thing is seeing how many youngsters and families and outdoors enthusiasts have been inspired or moved in some way by it. It’s such a good feeling.”
Diggins — who threw the ceremonial first pitch at a Minnesota Twins baseball game last week — said it is a new and strange experience to get recognized in airports and other public places. She said people will tell her they tried cross-country skiing because they watched her gold-medal race.
“It’s powerful. It’s dynamic. It’s engaging. It’s exciting. It’s head-to-head racing,” Diggins said of cross-country skiing. “People are getting into it and it’s so spectator-friendly nowadays. You can watch online. It’s easier to be a fan now.”
There is no shortage of fans in Central Oregon, where myriad nordic trails make it a hot spot for the sport. Diggins said she enjoys returning to Bend each spring to reconnect with young skiers and folks she has gotten to know over the years.
“This is like our startup camp every year, so it’s a special place for us,” Diggins said. “It’s really fun because when you come back to a place over time, you build up those awesome relationships with the community and the area and the people in the area. It’s really fun to get to catch up and see what everyone in the area is doing, because we only get this snapshot of Bend for two weeks every year.”
The team arrived in Bend on Saturday and plans to stay until next Friday. Aside from skiing at Bachelor, while here they will lift weights at the Athletic Club of Bend and head to Rebound Physical Therapy in west Bend for injury prevention work.
Many members of the team enjoy mountain biking on the trails near Bend, though Diggins admits she is “a little scared of it.”
After the camp in Central Oregon, Diggins will head to Stratton, Vermont, the home of her club ski team, for dryland training that includes roller skiing, weightlifting, biking and swimming. Additional team camps this summer will be held at Lake Placid, New York, and in New Zealand. The last camp takes place in October in Park City, Utah, before 4½ months of World Cup racing, mostly in Europe.
Throughout this offseason and here in Central Oregon, Diggins is taking on the responsibility she feels to “pay it forward” after winning gold.
“The only reason I’m here today as a professional cross-country skier is because of the opportunities provided for me,” she said. “I do feel like this responsibility to do everything I can so that the junior skiers coming up behind us have all the opportunities and tools they need. I want to help make the World Cup happen in the U.S. because when people are excited about a medal and excited about the Olympics, then you’re the person who can make it happen.”