Ski suit? Check. Poles? Check. Perfectly waxed skis? Check. Glitter? Check.
Before every race, four-time World Champion cross-country skier Jessie Diggins, 26, makes sure she sparkles on the outside because that’s exactly how she feels on the inside.
“I think ski racing is so fun, and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing with my life,” Diggins told us from Austria. “So, before every race, and this goes back to high school, I put glitter on my face. It’s this reminder to myself to go out there and have fun because when I’m having fun, that’s when I’m racing really fast. And, it’s also this promise to myself that I’m going to try my best and enjoy every moment of it.”
No moment in her skiing career will be bigger than when she toes the start line at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, where she will attempt to make history and become the first American woman to win an Olympic Medal in cross-country skiing.
Four years ago, she arrived in Sochi, a mere blip on the Nordic radar. But, she rose to the occasion and had a top-10 finish. This year, however, her sights are set higher and her training has reflected that.
“It’s a different mindset going in,” she said. “I know I belong in the fight for this.”
‘Gliding Through Nature’
Diggins grew up in Afton, Minnesota, the daughter of two outdoor enthusiasts who especially loved endurance sports.
“Since I was a baby, I was in my dad’s backpack on the trails and I grew up thinking, ‘Wow, this is such a cool way to see all areas of the world. You’re gliding through nature under your own power,'” Diggins recalled.
Once she turned three, her parents put her on her own sticks, and enrolled her in the Minnesota Youth Ski League. In addition to skiing, she played soccer, swam and danced, which in turn, cultivated her talent on skis.
“In skiing, there’s a lot of different motions. You have the classical style technique, you have skating, and you’re just moving in very different planes of motion all the time, so I think being able to adapt to different movement patterns you pick up from other sports really helps you in skiing, especially because technique is an ever-changing thing,” Diggins explained. “You have to be able to pattern new motions in your brain. Playing other sports was a huge advantage.”
By the time she was 13, she was racing junior varsity for Stillwater High School until the coach told her that she had to suit up for varsity because one of the other skiers got sick.
Once she officially entered high school, she won back-to-back state championships in her first two years. The following year, she was competing in France at the FIS Nordic Junior World Ski Championships.
After graduation, she deferred an academic scholarship to Northern Michigan University and spent a year on the Central Cross-Country Elite team. By 2011, she was added to the US Ski Team.
Five months prior to the 2014 Olympic Games, however, Diggins pulled muscle in her foot and was in a boot and on crutches.
She battled back to compete, and still exceeded expectations by placing 8th in the 15-kilmometer race.
Four years later, much has changed, both physically and mentally.
“I’m older for one. The older you get in this sport (cross-country skiers don’t peak until they’re in their late 20s or early 30s), the more training hours you can absorb,” she said. “When I’m training peak volume, I’m training three to four hours a day of cardio. I go out in the morning and roller ski for two-and-a-half hours, so I’ve done little things to help me physically, like adding Bioenergy Ribose, a natural, sustainable energy source that helps me recover for my afternoon session, so I can get more out of it.”
And mentally, how are these Olympic Games different?
“The first time around, I didn’t know what to expect, and there was a lot of energy wasted in looking around, going ‘Oh, cool,'” she said. “This time, I know what it’s going to be like to be living in the Olympic Village and to be racing in the games. So from the perspective of preparing for my races, I’m in a really good place.”
Not a Solo Sport
Yes, Diggins is aiming to earn some Olympic hardware, but her measurement for success extends beyond that.
“There are so many things that are totally outside of your control in this sport,” Diggins explained. “Someone can crash into you and take you out, you could break a pole or you could get sick. For me, success is going to be defined as crossing the finish line in my race, looking back and knowing that I couldn’t have given anything more. It will be having no gas left in the tank and knowing that in the last four years, I’ve left no stone unturned.”
That’s the perspective Diggins has had leading up to the Olympics, too.
“It’s applied to every World Cup weekend. Whether or not I had an amazing result as a number on the sheet, if I can look back at a race and go, ‘Wow, I left it all out there,’ that’s when I feel like that was a successful day for me. Sometimes you happen to have that successful day and you win, sometimes you’re 25th, but it was an amazing race.”
When she’s gutting it out on the course, she isn’t thinking about results anyway. At least not in the moment. She’s laser-focused on the process itself.
“I’m in tune with what I’m doing at that moment,” she said. “I’m just thinking about putting all my weight down into my poles and pushing off one ski, and gliding on the next. Then I’m thinking about pushing off on the other ski. Being focused on what you’re doing in that second helps you in the process of going fast.”
While Diggins typically gets all the credit for racing fast, she acknowledges that there are many people who contribute to her success.
“Our coaches and wax techs often get overlooked, but they put so much time and so much work in behind the scenes,” Diggins said. “Waxing skis is a fairly thankless job. They’re up at 5:00 a.m. before the races, testing hundreds of combinations of wax. We can’t do what we do without them. I think it’s important for people who are watching the Games to realize what is going on in the hours before the race so that we even get a chance. There’s a lot of people who have helped me get where I am today.”
And many of them will travel overseas to watch Diggins compete in six Nordic races held over two-and-a-half weeks. Even her grandmother, who has been training for the trip.
“She’s been training for all the walking you have to do because there’s a ton of hiking to get out to those cross-country trails,” Diggins said.
No word on whether she’ll apply glitter like her granddaughter.
Regardless, with four years of hard work and buckets of sweat poured into preparing for these Olympic Games, Diggins will sparkle brighter than anything on her face.