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Catching up With Jessie Diggins: World Champs Highlights and Looking Ahead to Holmenkollen

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Reigning 10km skate world champion Jessie Diggins spoke with members of the media yesterday morning via Zoom, in a brief moment of downtime between the pressures and successes of world championships in Planica and what should be the all-time awesome craziness of the first-ever women’s World Cup 50km (!) at Holmenkollen (!!!) this weekend.

Here are excerpts from that conversation. Read on for more on everything from the self-doubt that Diggins had to overcome a few weeks before Planica to the admission that she does not, in fact, currently know where her Olympic medals are right now — and why it is awesome when wide-eyed kids get to hold them, are surprised by their weight and heft, and drop them on the ground. Media questions have in many cases been paraphrased; Diggins’s answers are unchanged (save for noting when a balky computer connection cut out and some audio was lost).

So this happened: Jessie Diggins, 10km skate world champion. (photo: Leann Bentley)

Leann Bentley, USSS: You’ve had a couple days off since worlds; how are you feeling?

Jessie Diggins: I’m feeling really good.

I had a wonderful last couple days; I was in Sjusjøen with my parents in a beautiful little cabin right on the side of the ski trail, and it was just gorgeous, gorgeous skiing. I did intervals in the stadium this morning and I was the only one out there; I had the Sjusjøen trails all to myself.

And there were all these little kids out there when I finished, doing skijoring and stuff. So it was just so fun to see and get to experience that and get to share that with my parents, so I feel refreshed. I was able to have a nice little, albeit a short break, but a nice little break to kind of reset and recover after all the stresses and excitement of World Champs. And now I’m looking forward to closing down the season as best I can and race as hard as I can. Which is usually just all I focus on anyway, but I’m very excited for some historic races coming up.

Peggy Shinn: Of your six world championships medals, I’m sure each one has different meanings to you; you’ve got three solo and three in team events. Do any of those stand out — is it the gold in the 10km just because it was sort of the best race ever?

Oh gosh. That’s such a hard question because I always feel like the team ones mean so much more to me. Whether it’s a gold or a bronze or whatever, getting a chance to do that with Julia [Kern] was so special. I cried in the finish, and it was really, really emotional. So that’s always going to be really special for me.

The 10km was very special in that leading up to World Champs, we were really pushing it and trying to go for a really big peak in my training plan. And you know I think I sometimes give off the vibe of like a happy-go-lucky unicorn, and it’s always great and glittery and everything, but it was actually a really challenging time and I had a lot of self doubt.

And two weeks before Worlds I was like, Wow, this is either gonna be the best peak of my entire life and I’ll be in incredible fitness, or it might blow up in my face. And I should have known better, and I did know better; I always trusted [Jason] Cork’s training plan, but we were riding the line there. And it didn’t turn into the best peak of my life — but you know, it didn’t come easy.

And I think that’s why the the medals from this championship are so meaningful and special because there was a certain amount of relief, like, Wow, this works. And we were pushing it and I really put everything I had into it. And so I think that was really cool.

But of course the team sprint medal with Sadie [in 2017] where we were kind of the dark horses coming out there in a classic race, that’s always going to be special for me. And then of course winning the gold with Kikkan [in 2013] and getting to do that with her when I was just 21. I was the baby of the team at that time. And that’s always going to be special. So I can’t like pick a favorite one. But they’re all just very meaningful for very different reasons.

Chad Salmela: I’m not aware of your 50km history — have you ever done a 50km?

I have done a 42km at the Merino Muster [in New Zealand] and at the Hoppet [in Australia] so I did get a chance to race longer distances and practice the feeding. I was racing with a pack of guys that were pushing me, and that was awesome. But then on top of that I wanted to try actually doing 50 kilometers.

[The connection was very spotty here, but Diggins generally said that she had done some 50km time trials. Here is an Instagram post about one of them from last fall:]

One of those was Jason Cork following me on a bike carrying feed bottles, and so it was just me hammering by myself.

And the other one was in Park City. And I actually recruited a bunch of people to pace me, and so Josh Korn and Luke Bodensteiner came out, and then Scott Lacy finished his biathlon intervals and went, “What’s going on over here; oh, I’ll help pace her too!”

And so I had this crew of guys pacing me, tagging out on different laps, and it was so cool and so inspiring. And it was definitely a hard 50km effort and we got the chance to test out my feeding strategy, what I wanted to fuel with, even coming down to a sprint finish with those guys. So it was a really, really cool, very motivating practice, and it got me really excited.

Chad Salmela: My follow-up to that is, you have a go-to-the-well mentality that is famous, and I think that was evident in your 10km freestyle victory. This weekend is going to require a similar type of going to the well, but over a longer distance. How will that affect how you pace yourself at Holmenkollen?

I think that’s a great question. And I think, in terms of physically preparing for it, that’s why we got a chance to do those 50km rollerski time trials, right? So this will not have been the first time that I’ve done that distance. I had an awesome chance to work with our sport dietitian; she’s been helping me dial in a fueling plan that we have tested time and time again. And then, you know, at the end of the day, you peak for World Championships and then [audio cut out some here, sorry]

The fitness that you carry into the rest of the season will hold for the rest of the season, but it’s not like you’re trying to build fitness the week before. You can’t really change it right now, but mentally that’s a whole nother ballgame, and that that’s where I get really, really excited.

[Read more, from November 2022: Jessie Diggins on the Season Ahead: Nothing to Prove, and ‘So Psyched’ to Race Holmenkollen 50km]

This reporter, Nordic Insights: I was reading Lauren Fleshman’s book, which, oh my god, is awesome, and one of the observations she has is that the thrill of success is always surprisingly fleeting. This feels a little unfair to ask you now since it’s only been a week since your 10km victory; I feel like you do get to celebrate this for a week or more. But I am curious, as an athlete who has, quite sensibly, talked about process so much, I’m curious how you internalize this result. Like, I hope you are celebrating, but I’m curious how you wake up and go to training the next day. And I’m curious more broadly how, in such a process-centric sport, you internalize having these results. It’s been a decade since your first World Champs medal, so obviously you’ve been able to do this, but I’m curious how having these amazing results coexists with your consistent focus on process.

I think she’s absolutely right. 

You know, the medal ceremony lasts 10 minutes, and then you’re moving on to the next race. And I think in my past, to be honest, I used to really not allow myself to celebrate the way I should, because I was so focused on the next race. And I would be so focused on, how do I recover, what do I have to do, I need to be there for the team, I’ve got to get ready for the relay.

And so I think I then learned, Wow, it is actually *so* hard to be the best in the world; I need to give myself a moment to enjoy it, and to absorb that and celebrate it. So I think I’ve learned how to strike a little bit healthier balance.

But I do think it’s something where I think I’ve found a way to enjoy the moment, give myself a pat on the back, and also then say, How can I be the best relay teammate that I can be? How can I be a good teammate for everyone on the team, which includes — you know, it’s not all about me, it’s not all about anyone. It’s about the team having success and moving forward and getting ready for the next race.

And so I think I’ve been able to strike a more healthy balance of not denying myself the ability to celebrate for fear that it might make someone else feel bad, but also being able to truly enjoy the moment, while knowing, Hey, I’ve done this for long enough; I know I’m doing what I need to do in order to get ready for the race, and I can trust in that process.

Ken Roth, FasterSkier: You had mentioned in your press conference before world champs that you were going to skip at least one event, and in fact you did. And that was a different approach from you compared to historically what you’ve done. And I’m wondering if you would share with us what the thought process was, what the decisionmaking process was in changing that strategy for you.

I think it’s interesting because at the Olympics, everything is stretched out, so you can race all six races, and recover, and hit each of them with the kind of intensity,  both physically and mentally, that you’d want to hit them with. And at the World Championships, especially with the women’s schedule having races actually back to back with the skiathlon and the team sprint, you do have to start making more choices.

And so I decided to prioritize the team sprint this time around. And it’s always challenging to figure out where do we race and where do we sit, but I was feeling good about what I thought I could contribute. I looked at the course and said, this could be a course that I can really, really contribute on, versus for example, in Seefeld .

And then we knew that coming up, with basically one week after the 30km [in Planica] going into the 50km [in Holmenkollen], this is a race that I’ve been wanting to do well at and targeting for a long time. And I think this is where we should kind of focus.

I have, in the past, sat races at world championships; I only did four in Oberstdorf and I only did four in Seefeld. So I think it’s not totally new for me to sit out races, but I’m starting to allow myself permission to pick and choose a little more and trust that that’s okay.

Ben Theyerl, FasterSkier: Congrats again on a great world championships. It’s very easy for all of us to spill a lot of words on how you’ve changed American skiing, but I was wondering if you had a moment ever where it all kind of comes back home and you think about how your results and your approach to skiing affect the ski community that you came from back in the United States, and just what message you would send to kids that are looking up at your first world championship and going, that’s what I want to dream of doing someday.

I think for me, there was a moment where it hit home where my mom told me about another mom of a skier who met her at a ski race and burst into tears because her daughter had been struggling with an eating disorder, and she felt like she had learned a lot from reading my book. And it was helping her be a supportive mom to her daughter and helping her kind of figure out maybe some red flags and some things that are helpful to say, or things that are helpful not to say, as the case may be sometimes.

And that is one thing that really, like, brought me to tears, because that is actually quite meaningful to me. And it’s something I’ve been working very hard on, is trying to change the culture of sport in a healthier way and trying to remove some stigma and some taboo around such a tough topic to talk about. Mental health is hard. So, for me, I think that was the thing that really hit hard that made me feel really proud of what I do and made hard times and challenging moments on the road or being gone — it just makes it feel a little more worth it when you feel like there’s something a little bit bigger than just trying to win races that’s at stake.

On a slightly more superficial note, it is so cool and adorable to see all these little kids with glitter on at [Bill Koch League festival and Minnesota Youth Ski League]. That’s actually really, really cool to see that all these little kids are running around just having so much fun and getting involved, and to see how the Minnesota Youth Ski League has grown; they’ve added so many chapters since 2018. That’s really cool.

And I think one of the big goals that a lot of us have for our sport is to get more people out there on skis and getting active in winter and not just sitting inside indoors, getting out there and appreciating how beautiful it is. So I think that’s been a really, really cool thing to see, that the coverage of cross-country skiing has grown, so that all these families start thinking about doing this.

This reporter, Nordic Insights: I’m curious where you physically keep your medals. This is maybe a throwaway question or maybe this bears on what I was getting at before about result versus process, but you now have nine medals from global championships, as well as globes and whatnot. I’m suspecting they’re not all up in a shrine to you in your living room. But do you have any of them up? Are they in a box somewhere? Does SMS have them? Where do you keep them?

Some of them are in my parents’ basement. We brought them there because we were doing a big meet and greet after the last Olympics, so we wanted to have the globes out for these little kids to see, and we wanted to have all the medals out.

And they’re getting super scratched. It’s awesome. They are getting thrown around. It’s pretty fun to see little kids be surprised by how heavy they are and then promptly drop them. It’s awesome.

And then — this is gonna sound terrible, but I’m not exactly sure. I believe the Olympic medals are in Stratton because that’s last where we wanted to bring them out to show the kids. So they’re probably with my husband in Boston or Stratton, but we’ll figure it out when I get home.

I’m not a super material person in that sense, but it is good to keep track of them because it is a fun thing to bring out when there’s a kids camp going on, and you want them to be able to hold it, and kind of see a cool example of where hard work might lead them.

Ken Roth, FasterSkier: Once again regarding the World Championships: Leading up to the team sprint and the relays, there was what seemed to be amongst the commentator class like endless speculation and endless discussion about the composition and makeup of those two teams. I was just wondering, does that at all filter down to the team members as individuals? Are they hearing discussions about the comments going on in the media about team composition or who should be or who shouldn’t be skiing, and if they do, is it affecting people at all?

I would say I try very hard not to consume any media going into World Championships, because it’s important for me to feel confident in my abilities and my plan. And I know that myself and my coaches and my teammates, we communicate a lot and very openly, and we know what’s going on, but consuming media and hearing other people speculate from the outside looking in — that can only hurt, really.

Not to speak ill of anyone else, but it’s just, for me, I would rather not hear somebody else speculating on my strengths and weaknesses. I’d rather talk to the coach who knows me, and make a plan with him and then believe in that plan and go for it with everything I have. So I can’t speak for other athletes, maybe they do consume some media leading into World Championships, but I try not to.

Peggy Shinn: Do you feel like a favorite going into the race this coming weekend?

No, I wouldn’t consider myself one. I rarely do, but I think given — seeing Ebba [Andersson] pull away from the field in the 30km was so inspiring and so gutsy and that was really, really cool. I probably would say she’s the favorite coming into this race. But I would say I would love to try to get to hang with her and work with her. That’d be really cool. I’m definitely gonna give it my all and see what happens, but I don’t really consider myself a favorite going into this.

Leann Bentley, USSS: What was your favorite memory of the 2023 World Championships?

Honestly the first thing that came to mind is when we were testing out the Super Soaker squirt guns that we had bought because we thought it was going to stay really, really hot, and we thought we were going to need them. And we found out that they did shoot 20 feet uphill, and we could soak Kevin [Bolger] while he was drinking coffee on the balcony. So that’s one of my favorite memories of the whole thing.

But I think my other favorite memory was getting to hug Julia right when she crossed the finish line in that team sprint, and then also when Julia finished the four by five [relay], and all of us kind of huddled together and had a moment where it was like — it wasn’t sadness that we missed it, it was pride that we went out there and gave it everything we had. And I think that just shows a team that’s focused on the right things, that’s in it for the right reasons. And those finish line huddles with people who have just put everything they had into something is super meaningful. And those are the memories that you really remember for a long time.

— Gavin Kentch

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