Afton native Jessie Diggins isn’t defined by Olympic gold medal: ‘She’s still the same Jessie’
The 30-year-old Diggins isn’t boastful in the way she carries herself. Nobody would ever know she’s an Olympic star simply by talking to her.
For all the glitz and glam that came with winning a gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Afton native Jessie Diggins hasn’t been defined by her meteoric rise.
Sure, her platform is much bigger than before, something Diggins uses to her advantage to talk about eating disorders, mental health and climate change, among a handful of other causes. She also has emerged as a face of Team USA heading into the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, where she will chase another gold medal in cross country skiing.
That said, the 30-year-old Diggins isn’t boastful in the way she carries herself. Nobody would ever know she’s an Olympic star simply by talking to her. She doesn’t even keep the gold medal in her possession.
“The gold medal is literally in our basement,” mother Deb Diggins said with a hearty laugh. “It’s not displayed. It’s in its wooden case tucked away behind all her other trophies down there. We don’t know where to put them.”
The only thing Diggins keeps in her possession as evidence of her immense success on the international stage is a quilt made out of her World Cup race bibs. Someone crafted it for her, and she has it at her home in Stratton, Vt.
“We couldn’t be more proud of the person she is,” father Clay Diggins said. “She hasn’t changed who she is. She’s still the same Jessie she was before she had a gold medal. She just has more people listening now.”
And watching. She will compete in her opening event, the 15-kilometer skiathlon, on Saturday at 1:45 a.m. Central Time, and is scheduled to compete in five more events after that.
Asked about the pressure she’s feeling as a medal contender once again, Diggins referenced a quote from former Team USA coach Pete Vordenberg. He would always tell his athletes, “Every time we do something, it’s for the first time. Even if we do it again, it will be different.”
That has stuck with Diggins throughout her career. And it’s something she’s keeping in the back of her mind in Beijing.
“It’s not the same as Pyeongchang, and that’s OK,” Diggins said. “It’s important to remember that I don’t have to go in there defending anything. Nothing makes that medal and what I did four years ago disappear. And I don’t disappear if I don’t do it again.”
From the moment Diggins crossed the finish line in Pyeongchang, winning Team USA’s first-ever gold medal in cross country skiing, she has become more or less the face of the sport. She made more history on the international stage last season, becoming the first American to win the Tour de Ski, then parlaying that into a World Cup overall title.
All the while Diggins has stayed true to herself. That’s something her parents have taken a lot of pride in watching as their daughter has navigated the spotlight.
“The first thing that popped into my mind was the phrase, ‘She hasn’t changed,’ ” Deb Diggins said. “She has a real understanding of the commitment required to be at the top of this sport. As she says, it only takes 110 percent of everything she does.”
No matter if it’s a grueling race on the snow, or a speaking engagement off it, Diggins always gives 110 percent. She can’t afford to give anything less with cross country skiing.
“This sport is so humbling,” Diggins said. “There’s always something to learn. There’s always something to improve on. That’s what I love about it. I’m never going to be done trying to make myself better an inch at a time.”
While her attention to detail hasn’t changed since the the 2018 Winter Olympics, a major thing that has changed for Diggins is her engagement to longtime boyfriend Wade Poplawski. She proudly displayed her engagement ring on a recent Zoom call and confirmed the couple has set a date in May.
“She’s really comfortable with her life right now,” Clay Diggins said. “She’s found a great soulmate in Wade. She’s settled in with things. That allows her to take a little bit longer view of things now than she did before.”
That’s something Diggins mentioned, too, noting how she has a lot more perspective away from the racetrack.
“As a person, my baseline happiness is in a really good place,” she said. “It doesn’t really get shifted by racing the way it used to. When I was younger, every race seemed to be the best thing ever, or the end of the world. I’ve started to be able to say, ‘OK, this happened. I’m going to learn what I can and move on.’ It starts to become easier to move on from the ups and the downs.”
In addition to gaining perspective away from racing, Diggins has found a way to use her amplified voice to make a difference. She works closely with the Emily Program, a nonprofit that helps individuals recover from eating disorders, as well as Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit that raises awareness about climate change.
She’s grateful that the sport she loves so much has given her the platform to make a difference.
“My goal all along was to try to do as much good outside of the racetrack as I could,” Diggins said. “That way, win, lose, or draw, I’ve taken this time that I’ve had with the spotlight and done something with it. That does feel good. In that sense, it’s great to be a star of Team USA because that brings attention to mental health and climate change and things I’ve been shouting about forever. Now people are really listening.”
The pandemic has been extremely stressful on everyone and Olympic athletes are no different.
Just last month, Diggins started to get a stuffy nose during a World Cup competition and she immediately feared the worst. Thankfully it wasn’t COVID-19 and she was still able to race.
“It definitely took all of my energy and positivity and sheer will power to simply be healthy enough to race and make it to the finish line,” Diggins said. “I’m so proud of crossing the finish line. Just being able to finish was a huge accomplishment. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do that.”
Though she managed to dodge COVID a month ago, if anything, that scare made Diggins even more vigilant over the past month. Luckily for her, Team USA did a good job creating a bubble in that span, fully equipped with daily antigen testing and weekly PCR testing.
“We are doing everything that we possibly can, and that makes me feel really good about our odds of staying healthy,” Diggins said. “Even when we leave the rooms, we have our KN95 masks on. We are taking all the precautionary steps that we can.”
That was vital over the past month with an uptick in COVID cases worldwide. A positive test has the potential to derail a lifelong dream.
Asked if the increased safety measures stressed her out, Diggins noted how it actually had the opposite effect. While it definitely made her think about it more on a daily basis, she felt good knowing Team USA was doing everything it could.
“It would be more stressful to feel like we’re being risky,” Diggins said. “I think that wearing masks has actually lowered everyone’s tension level. We don’t have to wonder, ‘What if?’ We know we are doing everything we can. That mentality that we are going all-in to protect each other is actually less stressful for all of us.”
Whenever she’s coming down the home stretch, Diggins starts to taste blood before nearly blacking out. That willingness to exert every ounce of energy in her body, and then give a little more, is what makes her so good. It’s who she is.
It’s also why Diggins isn’t feeling much pressure heading into these Olympics. She knows what she has to do to feel successful. She isn’t focused on anyone else.
“All I can control is going as hard and as smart as I can,” she said. “And I know how to push hard. That’s something I definitely know how to do. I know when I cross the finish line, I’ll have given everything I have, and that makes me feel very proud.”
Longtime coach Jason Cork believes Diggins can be a force to be reckoned with in Beijing, largely based on her mental fortitude.
“She’s got the ability to suffer,” Cork said. “It’s not entirely about who’s the fittest and who has the fastest skis. I can ski on Jessie’s skis and I can’t race like she does because I don’t like to hurt like that. I think that’s a huge advantage. Realistically, I think there’s an outside chance she could medal multiple times. But I’ll be happy and proud of her either way.”
Likewise, Diggins will be proud of herself either way. She is embracing the pressure that comes with competing for another gold medal. She also is very much looking forward to being an unquestioned leader for Team USA this time around.
No matter what happens over the next two weeks, though, Diggins knows she’s going to leave it all out there. That’s more than enough for her.
“For me, success at the Olympics means crossing the finish line with nothing left in the tank, and knowing without a shadow of a doubt that I left it all out there,” she said. “If I can do all those things and go, ‘I gave it everything I had,’ that will be success to me. It doesn’t have to be a medal. It’d be great if it is. It’d be fine if it isn’t.”
WHEN DOES JESSIE DIGGINS COMPETE?
Feb. 5: 15K Skiathlon, 1:45 a.m.
Feb. 8: Freestyle Sprint, 2 a.m.
Feb. 10: 10K Classic, 1 a.m.
Feb. 12: 4x5K Relay, 1:30 a.m.
Feb. 16: Classic Team Sprint, 3 a.m.
Feb. 20: 30K Freestyle, 12:30 a.m.
Times listed are Central (Minnesota) time.