Here comes Jessie Diggins.
Diggins, who in PyeongChang teamed with Kikkan Randall to win the U.S.’ first Olympic cross-country skiing title, heads to Europe on Monday to ramp up training for the World Cup season that begins Thanksgiving weekend.
She plans to work her way into top fitness, peaking at the world championships in Austria in late February. Though Diggins has her Olympic gold, the 27-year-old rattles off goals with the kind of excitement that jibes with the face glitter with which she is known to race.
“There’s so many things left to accomplish, but I think one of my biggest ones that would mean so much to me is if we got a medal in the 4x5km relay,” Diggins said in a recent interview. “That really shows the strength of the team and depth of the team. For me, that would be possibly the most meaningful thing to ever accomplish.”
Diggins was part of the last three world championships relays. The U.S. finished fourth in 2013, 2015 and 2017. In PyeongChang, the Americans were fifth. If they are to make the podium either this season or at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, it must be without stalwart Randall.
The Alaskan retired after her fifth Olympics. In July, Randall announced she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. She has documented treatment the last four months, including posing for a photo after surgery this week wearing a pink Superman crown, holding an orange popsicle and lifting a thumbs-up.
“She’s doing such a great job, going after this newest challenge with so much tenacity and strength and courage,” Diggins said. “We’re there to support her in every way that we can.”
Diggins not only takes over the role as veteran U.S. leader on the World Cup, but also remains one of the biggest challengers to Norwegian dominance. In the last Olympic cycle, she moved from 22nd in the World Cup overall standings in 2015 to eighth in 2016, sixth in 2017 and runner-up to Heidi Weng last year.
Three Norwegians combined to win the last five World Cup overall titles. Although 15-time Olympic medalist Marit Bjørgen retired after PyeongChang, two-time World Cup overall champion Therese Johaug is now eligible to return from a two-season ban over lip cream.
“It would be pretty cool to some day try to win the crystal globe, try to get the overall to show that you can compete in every event throughout the entire season,” said Diggins, whose five individual World Cup race wins came in 5km and 10km freestyles. “That’s a huge, huge reach goal, but I was second by 40 points last year, so I guess it’s not the craziest goal to have.”
Bill Koch is the lone American to win a World Cup overall title, doing so in 1982. He was also the lone U.S. Olympic cross-country medalist until February. The Diggins and Randall team sprint victory was groundbreaking in itself, but the “Here Comes Diggins!” exclamatory call by NBC Olympics analyst Chad Salmela also added impact.
Diggins could not estimate how many times she has heard the phrase in the last eight months. She has known the fellow Minnesota native Salmela since high school.
Diggins has been feted across the Land of 10,000 Lakes since returning from South Korea. She was honored with her own day and ice cream in her hometown of Afton. She was overwhelmed by the response to revealing her teenage eating disorder.
“It was really emotional at times, because I heard from these young girls who reminded me of me,” she told NBC’s affiliate in Minneapolis.
While appearing at a fundraiser for a World Cup event to be held in Minneapolis in 2020, a man with the Minnesota Vikings asked if she would speak to the football team. She obliged and afterward praised the players twice her size for the respect shown to her.
“I can’t tell you all the secrets, but basically the message was how do we focus on what we can control so that we can perform when it matters,” she said. “Like I said to them, I don’t know anything about football. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert. They’re the experts. But I do know what it’s like to work so hard day after day, going after these crazy goals with the team. I know what works in my sport when it comes to focusing in and trying to peak at the right moment.”
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer expanded after the team won their following game.
“Basically she talked about how everybody can do anything for 10 things, whether it’s 10 push-ups, or as she said, ’10km, but I would count ten strides,'” Zimmer said. “Who knows if any of that stuff is a big factor in winning, but it gets you to think about what’s important and how you can overcome when you’re tired, basically about sucking it up.”
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