Jessie Diggins Is Prioritizing Her Mental Health This Season
by Peggy Shinn
Jessie Diggins is about to begin her twelfth season racing fulltime on the FIS Cross Country World Cup Tour. The three-time Olympic medalist is in northern Finland — about a nine-hour drive north of Helsinki — with the U.S. team prepping for the traditional three-day World Cup opener in Ruka.
Even though she has won everything that there is to win in cross-country skiing — Olympic and world championship gold medals, the overall world cup title, and the Tour de Ski crown — Diggins still has a big list of to-dos that she is working on, like improving her classic stride and tweaking her race strategy. It’s her dream job, and “if I can, I still want to do this,” she stated on a media call from Finland.
This season, however, will look different for the 32-year-old cross-country skier. After a relapse with an eating disorder, Diggins has set no “results goals” for the season.
“I’m focusing on just doing my best and taking it one day at a time and one race at a time,” she said. “I’m not making promises for the whole season.”
Nor is she promising to race every world cup. Since her world cup debut in 2011, Diggins has competed in 277 world cup races (just 101 shy of Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, who was in the sport for 20 years.
“I’m just focusing on one day at a time and having a happy and healthy season as the priority,” Diggins emphasized.
Diggins began struggling with an eating disorder during her senior year in high school — brought on by comparisons to the world’s top cross-country skiers and by internal pressure to perform and meet others’ expectations. A very competitive type A personality, Diggins was primed to develop an eating disorder, which studies have shown has a genetic component.
As life became even more pressurize-filled, with AP classes, extracurricular activities, and her body simply going through a growth spurt, Diggins began purging as a way to control her body. She was trying to shed food that her body badly needed to build and repair itself after hard workouts.
“I wanted to be really, really good at skiing, and I believed that to do that, I needed to have a super-lean body,” she wrote in her book Brave Enough, in which she first told her fans about her eating disorder.
Through her family, Diggins found help through the Emily Program. And after winning the Olympic gold medal in 2018 and publishing Brave Enough the following year, she began talking openly about her eating disorder and mental health.
This past summer, Diggins was again hit by a perfect storm of pressure and stress.
“I started getting back to this idea that I have to be perfect, and some pretty binary thinking like it has to be perfect if I were going to do it,” she said. “It’s not true, and I know that, but that’s part of how my brain works.”
Diggins immediately sought help from her support team — a “safety net” that she has built over the past dozen years. Through this team of coaches, sports psychologist, teammates, and her husband and family, she realized that she needed to put her life back in balance and to find other coping mechanisms.
She acknowledged that many athletes suffer from feeling like results equate to their worth.
“All the time we’re told, ‘I’ll cheer for you, I hope you win,’” Diggins explained. “It’s easy to start internalizing that and thinking that maybe that’s where my worth lies, maybe I’m here only because of results.”
Diggins realized that she had been working too hard for too long. So she took a step back and is in a better place now.
While Diggins participated in the U.S. team’s off-season camps, she acknowledged that her training was not as productive as it has been in previous years.
“And that makes me kind of sad,” she admitted.
For someone who thrives on hard work, it was difficult for Diggins to not fully dive into training as she is accustomed to doing.
“I couldn’t be all in this summer all the time, and that ended up being the right thing for my mental health, which is the important thing and that’s the big picture,” she said.
On the eve of the first World Cup this weekend, Diggins is uncertain of how she will race, “and that’s kind of scary,” she admitted.
She is trying to embrace the unknown and go easy on herself, remembering that she has always worked her way into the season.
“I’m allowed to have bad days, and that’s something that I’m also working on being okay with,” she added.
Diggins is also looking long term. She would like to compete in her fourth Olympic Games in 2026.
“That’s another reason for me to remember to take care of myself so that I have the chance to do that,” she said. “I don’t have to do it. But I want to have the option, and I want to give my body the option.”
This coming season, there are no world championships or Olympic Games on the calendar. But one of the highlights for the American cross-country skiers is the Minneapolis World Cup — the first time in 22 years that a cross-country world cup has come to U.S. snow.
Originally, a one-day Minneapolis World Cup was scheduled in March 2020. Just days before the event, it was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The cancelation was a huge disappointment for Diggins, who hails from Minnesota.
Now back on the calendar, she is unsure if she will be able to compete in the event — a two-day race weekend featuring men’s and women’s freestyle sprints and freestyle 10-kilometer races (two of Diggins’s strengths).
“I would love to [compete],” she said. “I’ve worked so hard for so long in order to race. The irony is, sometimes getting everything you ever wanted comes with unexpected pressures, right?”
Diggins will only be in Minneapolis for four days and does not want to disappoint anyone — not her family, friends or fans.
“My grandparents haven’t seen me race in person since I was 19 years old,” she said.
“It's going to be hard because I want to give everyone everything that they're hoping for,” she continued. “I want to high five every single person because we’ve work so hard to make this happen. And I know that I can't. I just have to find a way to say I'm doing the best I can.”
Diggins is also hoping that she can race the American Birkebeiner, an iconic 50-kilometer cross-country ski race in Wisconsin the weekend after the Minneapolis World Cup. She put the race on her training plan last spring. Her husband and family also signed up.
“It’s just one more reason to keep taking care of myself because I would really love to make it to the start line,” she said.
The organizing committee made Diggins a race bib made entirely from glitter, giving her even more motivation to make it to the Birkie start line.
But Diggins does not need glitter to be excited to race — even if sparkles are her trademark. She wants to race as much as she can this winter, as long as it does not compromise her physical or mental wellbeing.
“I hope everyone understands that when I do have a race bib on, it’s because my whole care team and I have agreed that this is good, that it’s right for me to be there, and it’s okay for me to be there.”