Jessie Diggins — the Defending Olympic Champion — Talks About Her Priorities This Season
by Peggy Shinn
Jessica Diggins celebrates winning the Tour de Ski on Jan. 10, 2021 in Val Di Fiemme, Italy.
Jessie Diggins has a busy season ahead of her.
The 30-year-old cross-country skier is the defending overall world cup champion, 2021 Tour de Ski winner and reigning team sprint Olympic gold medalist. She won the world cup distance title last season, as well.
It’s impressive palmarès for an American cross-country skier. The sport has long been dominated by Scandinavians and Russians, and Diggins has become a star in the U.S. and a superstar in Europe.
In an ideal world, Diggins would defend all four titles — and add more at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 this coming February. But she is realistic and is not the kind of person to let success go to her head.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from or what you’ve done, you have to earn your place on the team and you have to earn a relay start,” she said in a recent media call. “You have to prove that you’re in the right shape to be there. That’s what I love about our sport; no one gets a free pass.”
It’s what drives Diggins during the off season. Her Olympic gold medal is in her parents’ basement in Minnesota.
“I don’t ride on the successes of the past,” she said. “I am proud of them because it reflects a lot of hard work from a lot of different people, from the whole community and country. But I have to prove myself this year.”
So, what races is Diggins prioritizing this season?
Since her first world cup race over a decade ago, Diggins has stood on the podium in every type of cross-country ski race, from sprints to 30-kilometer mass starts, and in both disciplines, classic and freestyle.
Her weakest discipline is classic skiing (traditional kick and glide). But it’s difficult to tell. She earned a world championship bronze medal with Sadie Bjornsen in a classic team sprint in 2017 (one of Diggins’s four world championship medals). And her first podium at U.S. national championships came in a classic sprint.
Last season, Diggins was the only skier to earn points in every world cup race that was held. She brought a heavy training load into Period 1 (world cup races in November and December until the Tour de Ski starts), so did not step onto the podium until the Tour de Ski started. Only after she won the Tour and took over the world cup lead did she realize that winning the overall world cup title was a possibility and shifted her focus to achieving that goal.
This season, her prep plan is similar. But her focus is “most definitely the Olympics,” she said.
“You’re going to see me really working into the season,” she said. “That’s not to say that you won’t see good performances in period one, but probably not. You’re going to see me being patient, taking my time, then slowly working up to one large peak (in February).”
Diggins hinted at results to come when she won the classic sprint qualifier at the first world cup races of the season in Finland last Friday.
And if by season’s end, she does happen to defend the overall world cup title, all the better.
Part of Diggins’s prep plan includes competing in this year’s Tour de Ski. But winning the race is not the priority this year.
Last year, she dominated the Tour, winning two races and making the podium in four others. She was able to share some of the pressure with teammate Rosie Brennan, who was on the podium with her twice and carried the overall world cup lead until the final day.
Brennan finished last season’s Tour in sixth place overall. But Brennan, 32, is sitting out the Tour this year, choosing to train at home in Alaska as she prepares to qualify for her second Olympic Games.
This year, the Tour is more of a training tool for Diggins as she preps for her third Olympic Winter Games. This year’s iteration of the multi-race Tour has six stages that start with a freestyle sprint on Dec. 28 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
“The Tour de Ski has always been part of my prep plan,” she stated. “It’s part of how I build that fitness.”
Before the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, Diggins competed in her first Tour de Ski, finishing 13th. In 2018 — six-and-a-half weeks before the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 — she claimed third place, becoming the first American to stand on the Tour’s overall podium.
“For me, it’s been really successful [to race the Tour before] past Olympics,” she added. “So if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins celebrate winning the cross-country skiing - ladies' team sprint free at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 22, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.
“Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins!”
NBC commentator Chad Salmela’s call as Diggins flew down the finish stretch of the team sprint to win a gold medal at PyeongChang 2018 was a defining call of those Games. And it’s the race for which Diggins may always be remembered.
But Diggins’s performances in the five other cross-country races at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games were amazing as well. She competed in every Olympic race (six total) and finished no lower than seventh in any of them. In both the 10k freestyle and 15km skiathlon, she finished fifth, just 3.3 and 4.6 seconds from the medals, respectively. She came in sixth in the individual sprint (a classic race in 2018) and seventh in the 30km classic mass start race.
The 2022 Olympic Winter Games will again feature six races per gender. But the technique changes in the sprint, team sprint, 10km and 30km races. This go-round, the sprint and 30km races are in the freestyle discipline and the team sprint and 10km are classic races.
Again, Diggins will likely compete in all six races.
“I don’t think there’s a single race I’m not interested in,” she said. “If I’m in good form, if I'm racing the way I want to be racing, the way I’m hoping my body will respond to this peaking plan, you’ll see me taking a lot of big swings in a lot of different races.”
In which races will she take the biggest swings?
“This is probably not going to come as a surprise, but the team events always draw my eye,” Diggins said, referring to the team sprint and 4x5km relay.
Diggins has always liked to share her success with her team, and these events give her the opportunity to share both the pain and the glory (and sometimes the disappointment) with her teammates.
“Jessie could win 15 Olympic medals by herself, and she would not enjoy it,” said head coach Matt Whitcomb. “She enjoys it because of the team that surrounds her.”
Although the U.S. women have finished on the podium in several world cup relays, they have yet to win a world championship or Olympic medal in a relay. At 2021 world championships last February, they were close, finishing fourth.
Although relay stalwart Sadie Maubet Bjornsen retired at the end of last season, the U.S. will still field a tough relay team, with Brennan, Diggins, and a handful of talented up-and-comers gunning for the four relay spots. Diggins will likely ski the relay’s anchor leg — the position she has skied in every U.S. relay in which she’s competed.
And she will turn herself inside out to get her teammates onto the podium.
“There’s something so glorious about having the whole team together and having everyone put the pieces together at the same time on the same day,” said Diggins about the relay. “It means so much.”
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered six Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.