Readers’ Choice Awards: Best Jessie Diggins Performance


Jessie Diggins world championship gold did a lot of impressive things world championship gold in the 2022/2023 ski season world championship gold. She won her fifth and sixth world championships medals, along with, now, a complete set of Olympic medals, which together enable this extremely aesthetically pleasing table world championship gold at the top of her Wikipedia entry:

(photo: Wikipedia screenshot)

Diggins was world championship gold second in the overall World Cup standings, and was in contention for her second overall globe through world championship gold the season’s final weekend. She was also second in the distance standings. She was world championship gold third in the inaugural World Cup women’s 50km race, at an obscure venue called Holmenkollen, losing out on the win world championship gold by fractions of a second.

But at the end of the day, the clear favorite in readers’ minds for the best Jessie Diggins performance last season was… gold in the 10-kilometer interval-start skate race at 2023 World Championships in Planica in late February.

It’s hard for me to heroicize this performance more than I already have. Here’s an excerpt from my original day-of story (which you can read in full here), for what it’s worth:

“Lap two of the 10km was career-defining. From 4.5km to 5.2km, Diggins stretched her margin over second from 1.1 seconds up to 2.9 seconds. From 5.2km to 7.7km, she grew her lead from 2.9 seconds to 5 seconds, the advantage moving in the right direction but victory far from assured. A lot can happen over 2.3 kilometers — keep in mind that Laura Gimmler lost roughly eight seconds over the final 400 meters of Sunday’s team sprint.

“Then from 7.7km to the end, the crux of the race, the moment when everyone in the field has the greatest motivation to push as hard as they can and thousands of hours of physical and mental training are all brought to bear in the service of this single goal… Diggins extended her lead over Karlsson from 5 seconds to 14.

“At this level of sport, with these margins, where the greatest athletes in the world are all within fractions of a percentage point of each other, this is huge. Diggins at her best is the best athlete in the world at closing down a race course. She showed it today, taking the win in emphatic fashion.

“The medal is the sixth (!) world championships medal of Diggins’s career, alongside three Olympic medals. It is, by my calculations, the first individual gold medal in history for an American nordic skier at a global championship; Bill Koch managed ‘only’ Olympic silver and world champs bronze in the 1970s and 80s, and Diggins had previously won Olympic and world champs gold in the team sprint. Nordic skiing was first contested at the Olympics in 1924, and at FIS World Championships in 1925. It’s taken a while to get to this moment.”

To my mind, that’s the significance of the day in a nutshell. At one level, the day was about nine seconds, the (frankly staggering) amount by which Diggins increased her lead over Frida Karlsson, hardly a poor skier, over the final 2+ kilometers of her second time around the 5km course in Planica.

At another level, the day was about 99 years, the length of time that America had been waiting for an individual gold medal in cross-country skiing. Diggins knew the history, Diggins knew she was the favorite on this course, and Diggins delivered. Zach Caldwell and Jim Galanes were impressed. Bill McKibben was impressed. And Nordic Insights readers were impressed, voting this Diggins’s best performance from last season with 68 percent of the vote overall. It is perhaps an unsurprising result, but neither is it an undeserved one.

Margit Nordin races the 1923 Vasaloppet, then, as now, a 90-kilometer classic race. Her womb did not fall out. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, and sad to say, women have not been racing at global championships since the 1920s. Women first competed in cross-country skiing at the Olympics in 1952, in Oslo (at Holmenkollen, in fact), and at world champs in 1954, in Falun. They initially contested just a 10km, in 1952, then both a 10km and a relay in 1954. (In that world champs relay, the men raced a 4 x 10km relay; the women, a 3 x 5km.) Prior to March 12, 2023, women had never raced a 50km at the World Cup level.

“I’ve been waiting my whole life to race the actual 50km at Holmenkollen,” said Diggins in a pre-season press conference.

“To be totally frank,” continued the preternaturally well-spoken athlete who has been talking to sports media for nearly half her life now, “I think it’s total crap that the women never got to race this iconic distance. It made me feel really sad. And mad. And so now I’m finally getting a chance to race it.”

My Google sleuthing suggests that this was the first time in Diggins’s entire life that she ever uttered the phrase “total crap” in an on-the-record interview currently findable anywhere online. Diggins felt strongly about this.

And on race day in Oslo, Diggins skied strong. She led the charge for every sprint prime, taking five out of six of them to bolster her case for the World Cup overall. She was in contention for the win until the very end, ultimately fading slightly in the finishing stretch to cross the line in third, 0.5 seconds behind Norwegians Ragnhild Haga in first and Astrid Øyre Slind in second. It was a historic triumph on a historic day, and it merited 12 percent of reader voting for the highlight of her season.

By the way, Diggins was also second in the overall World Cup standings (10 percent of the vote), adding to her overall globe from the 2020/2021 season and her second overall from both 2017/2018 and 2021/2022. She teamed up with her club teammate, Julia Kern of SMS, for bronze in the team sprint in Planica (3 percent of the vote). She was first, second, and third in three World Cup 10km skate races over the course of the season (3 percent of the vote). For most athletes, any of these results would be a season, if not a career, highlight. For Jessie Diggins, at this point in her career, they were nearly footnotes. Good problems to have.

*   *   *

Previously in 2023 Readers’ Choice Awards:

Best American Male Domestic Skier

Best American Female Domestic Skier

Best American Male World Cup Skier, Non–Ben Ogden Division

Best American Female World Cup Skier, Non–Jessie Diggins Division

— Gavin Kentch

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