A preseason press conference in professional sport — and I make this observation with nothing but immense gratitude for any athlete who gives up their time to take questions from the unwashed media — is not typically your best venue for new news or unexpected insights. Athlete A has had a strong summer of training. Athlete B has made some real gains in the weight room. Athlete C is really excited for the season ahead. Real gripping stuff. Again, no snark here, at all, to the athletes who are gamely answering these questions; rather it can just be hard to find real news about sports when the games haven’t started yet.
Keep that full weight of generic expectation in mind when you listen to Jessie Diggins’s opening remarks at her 2023/2024 preseason press conference, held earlier today before an international Zoom audience of roughly two dozen reporters. Here’s the opening statement from a universally beloved, multi-time Olympic medalist:
“Before we jump into the questions, I just want to address a couple of things and get them out there. I’m going to assume that a lot of the questions that I’m getting this year are probably around my mental health, and racing, and how that’s going. And the whole reason I shared this summer was to help people. And I don’t regret sharing my whole story, and how I’ve had a bit of a relapse this summer.
“But it has been challenging at times. It hasn’t always been easy. And in sharing my story, I got a lot of feedback from a lot of people that it helped them feel less alone. I got a lot of feedback from coaches and parents that it helped them find a way to connect with their athletes and their kids. And that was incredibly meaningful.
“So I’m happy to answer the questions that you have. I just want to say that mental health is physical health. So eating disorders are not a behavioral choice. It’s mental health.
“And I think the other reason I wanted to talk about this is because it’s important that we can talk about mental health. I think it can be really challenging and really scary and a little bit of a taboo subject, and it makes me feel really vulnerable, putting myself out there. Because everyone knows something really big about me. But at the same time, I’m trying to change the culture of sport for the better, so that we can change the way that we talk about and address mental health. I want athletes to feel like they can talk about this with their coaches the way that I’ve been able to talk to my coaches.
“So I just want to say — and I’m not the only athlete who is doing this. I’m really proud to be talking about mental health alongside athletes like Mikaela Shiffrin and Simone Biles and Michael Phelps. We’re all human, and we’re doing the best we can every single day.
“So this season, I’m focusing on just doing my best and taking it one day at a time and one race at a time. I’m not making promises for the whole season. I’m not putting out results goals. I’m not promising that I’m going to be there at every single weekend. I’m just focusing on one day at a time and having it be a happy and healthy season as the priority. So with that, I guess we can start taking questions.”
This is not Jessie Diggins qua sparkle chipmunk. This is Jessie Diggins qua mature, introspective athlete, or more properly qua human being who is also very good at skiing fast (i.e., being an athlete). She has no announced results goals. She is not promising to be there for every race weekend. This is someone who is now, suddenly, 32 years old, in her own phrasing “now more the team mom than the baby of the team.”
I’m not trying to be a downer, and the tone of the press conference was hardly funereal. Diggins remains an energized athlete and a compelling force, still thrilled to be racing with her team and to be advancing larger causes using the platform that her skiing provides her. But there is also a reason that Diggins started with that statement, and so I want to be sure to start with it, too, and to quote it in full.
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I could tell you Diggins’s thoughts about, say, racing the Birkie (she’s excited for it) or racing at home in Minneapolis (she’s beyond excited for it, but also is working on dealing with the pressure of this), but frankly I think her other thoughts are going to be more illuminating. Here are some of them.
On what’s keeping Diggins motivated for yet another season:
“There were some times this summer when I kind of thought about, I can just be done. And I don’t have to put my body through all this anymore. And that would be fine. That would be okay. Like, I’ve done a lot that I wanted to do in sport.
“But when I think about the things that I haven’t done yet that I’m excited about, it’s usually something very personal, like trying to figure out classic striding technique in a way that I’m really proud of. And it’s little things that I’m always working on. And I feel like I’m not done trying to reach my potential in the sport; I feel like I’m still growing every year and learning and working on things. And I have a big list of things that I’m working on, like technically, and strategy-wise, and power-wise, all these different things.
“So I’m never bored. I’m always looking at the next thing to improve on and how to push myself a little bit differently. And mentally, I feel like I’m not done there either. Like, I’m still pushing myself in different ways in races. And that really excites me, because one of the things I love so much about ski racing is when you really get down to the bottom of the well, you learn some things about yourself and how you react when you’re in that place and that pain cave, and that’s pretty cool. And I think I’m just not done learning about myself yet.
“And also I love this team. It’s my dream job. It really is. And I love being part of this team. And so if I can, I want to still do this.”
On whether Diggins has any specific goals for this season in terms of races:
“I’m just focusing really on one day and one week at a time. So I have not been putting the pressure on myself of setting season-long goals. You know, I would love to have fun and be here with my team. And of course I’d love to race all that I can, but I want to make sure that my health comes first, my mental and my physical health.
“But I can say that, and I hope everyone understands, that when I do have a race bib on it’s because me and my whole care team have agreed that this is good. And it’s right for me to be there and it’s okay for me to be there. So you know, when I do race, it’s because I want to.”
On whether it is difficult for athletes to talk with the media about mental health [and I know that Expressen sometimes gets written off as “just a tabloid” — if you look at its homepage, that reputation is not undeserved — but that said I want to shout out Philip Gadd of Expressen for this question, and to be fair the Swedish, well, tabloid is consistently great for its nordic ski coverage, regardless of what clickbait is on the home page]:
“I think athlete to athlete it is actually a lot easier to talk about mental health, because a lot of us are going through very similar experiences. We have similar life experiences, similar ups and downs.
“You know, when you’re a professional athlete, your life is like a rollercoaster. The highs are really high and the lows are really low, and everyone’s watching you and taking pictures. So it’s actually a lot like a rollercoaster.”
“But I think in terms of athletes talking to the media — I think it is really hard to decide to share this, and I don’t judge anyone for deciding not to. To be honest, I had a lot of people advise me that maybe you shouldn’t share this, because it makes you really be vulnerable. And it can be challenging, and it’s really scary to put yourself out there like that. So I totally understand and support anyone who’s going through a hard time if they want to heal their mental health in private; that’s also totally okay.”
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As noted above, Diggins is no longer the baby of the team. She has made a remarkable 304 World Cup starts so far, one of just eight women and four men to have eclipsed the 300-career-starts mark. (Stats dork aside: Diggins is currently in eighth place on the all-time women’s list for total starts. First place, the redoubtable Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, is still some distance clear with 378 starts total. Six of the women’s top ten here are currently active, reflecting the long careers and lack of specialization of modern World Cup skiing.)
Diggins made her World Cup debut in February 2011, raced the second half of the 2011/2012 season on the World Cup (TLDR after she won every race at 2012 U.S. Nationals at age 20 it was clearly time for her to move on), and has been a full-time World Cup athlete ever since the 2012/2013 season, if not ever since January 2012. This Thursday will mark Diggins’s eleventh consecutive year celebrating American Thanksgiving in the nether regions of northern Scandinavia the day before the World Cup season opener.
Diggins made it clear that she still enjoys racing, and would not be doing this if she did not. But what has changed in the rest of her life over the past decade; what role does ski racing play for her at present, now that she is no longer feeling 22?
“That’s a great question. And side note, if any of you have connections with the U.S. government, can you tell them to hurry up my husband’s green card so he’s allowed to come over to Europe and cheer for me? That’d be great. It’s been really tough to not have him able to leave the country while we’re waiting on that.
“Honestly, that is a huge challenge. It’s been really, really hard to leave for the season and know that he can’t come over here right now. And that is different than when I was in my early 20s, and you’re just like, Sweet, I’m over in Europe for the season, let’s go see everything! And it was easier to leave home when you didn’t have someone so important that you’re leaving behind. So that’s hard.
“But I think I’ve changed in other ways as well. Like when I first started racing World Cups, I just wanted to go fast. I just wanted to race and I just wanted to push myself. And that was kind of it. There wasn’t a bigger purpose behind it. I didn’t have a lot of other thoughts that went into the race.
“I also didn’t have a lot of pressure; no one was watching me. I didn’t have a press conference for the start of the season, for example. Like if I raced well, it was like, Sweet. And if I raced poorly, it was like, Yeah, you’re 19, we don’t care, it’s fine, you have time to grow. And so it was very different mentally.”
“But now there’s also a lot more behind it. Like I sit on several nonprofit boards, and that’s really cool. And I get a chance to talk about things like the work I do with Protect Our Winters. And the fact that Share Winter is getting so many kids on snow for the first time, kids who never would have had the chance to learn how to ski or ride. That’s amazing.
“And so I’ve been able to grow my platform, and then redirect it to things that I care about. Like the first thing pinned on my Instagram [see above] is about The Emily Program, and it’s gonna stay there. So I have this opportunity right now to talk about things that are really important to me, and continuing to race lets me do that. So I’m racing because it is fun, and I still like racing. But I’m also racing for some other reasons, too. And it’s a little bit of a bigger picture now.”
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Okay, that’s a lot of real talk about mental health and life in all its unflinching variety. To send things out on a lighter note, this reporter posed perhaps the most important query that Diggins will receive all season, conveniently using his daughters as cover for a question that he honestly wanted to ask himself/had wanted to ask ever since Diggins pranced through the streets of Europe lip-syncing with a pink guitar in this fine cover of “I Knew You Were Trouble” a decade-plus ago:
Nordic Insights: “What is your favorite Taylor Swift song?”
Diggins [laughs uproariously]: “Oh god, you really put me on the spot here. I don’t want to disappoint your kids. Probably ‘Style.’”
Nordic Insights: “Fair. Can you speak to why?”
Diggins: “It’s just really catchy, and her music video is perfect.”
Roll the credits, Tay Tay.
— Gavin Kentch