By Brian Halverson | May 15, 2018, 6:07 p.m. (ET)
Jessie Diggins celebrates as she crosses the line to win gold in the women's team sprint at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 21, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.

 

AFTON, Minn. -- If, as the well-known proverb says, it takes a village to raise a child, raising a champion takes a special kind of village — one much like Afton, Minnesota, the town of roughly 2,900 that spent Saturday honoring Jessie Diggins, its homegrown Olympic champion.

Diggins, who with teammate Kikkan Randall captured the United States’ historic first cross-country skiing gold medal and first women’s cross-country skiing medal in winning the team sprint at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, was the guest of honor at Afton’s Jessie Diggins Day celebration over the weekend. The tiny community of less than 3,000 residents in Minnesota’s St. Croix River Valley just 20 minutes east of St. Paul closed its streets and opened its arms to Diggins, her family and fans of all ages with an event filled with food, music and much fanfare.

“I grew up skiing in the Afton and the Stillwater area and the ski community here has been the single most important thing in my development as an athlete,” Diggins said as she addressed the hundreds who turned out to celebrate her. “We have so many amazing coaches, volunteer coaches, supporters of skiing in the area. Everyone who drives by when we are roller skiing and cheers for us instead of honking at us, that’s amazing, thank you.”

A police escort led Diggins through downtown Afton’s American flag-lined main street as she waved to sign-toting and cowbell-ringing admirers on her way to the town’s Steamboat Park. The park was filled with face paint and glitter stations, food vendors, sponsor booths and a video board displaying photos of Diggins and her triumphs.

Diggins even chose the name of a new ice cream flavor she inspired — Here Comes Diggins! — the phrase made famous by NBC Sports analyst Chad Salmela as Diggins rallied in the final meters to claim gold for the U.S.

Rebecca Nickerson, owner of Afton’s iconic Selma’s Ice Cream Parlour and one of the event’s primary organizers, said the base is an all-natural vanilla bean with an all-natural strawberry and blackberry streusel swirl.

“The inspiration was all about our favorites, things that represent Jessie,” Nickerson said. “It’s kind of a patriotic flavor, so red, white and blue, and then we finish it Jessie-style with gold sprinkles on top.”

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Nickerson said the name was chosen by Diggins from approximately 200 submissions collected via a flavor-naming contest.

“We had people that were 91 years old writing us letters from Farmington, Minnesota, to 4- and 5-year-olds coming in that wanted to name it some sort of princess flavor,” Nickerson said. “We got a lot of interesting names and she said she had a great time going through them.”

Local politicians made proclamations and presentations, a nearby street was renamed after Diggins for the day, and she received a Jessie Diggins Trail street sign from the Washington County sheriff.

Nalia Petersen, a 16-year-old high school sophomore from Golden Valley, Minnesota, traveled 45 miles with her father to see Diggins. Petersen, who just completed her second season competing for her high school’s cross-country ski team, said Diggins’ gold-medal moment resulted in a shift in her attitude toward the sport.

“Before, I’d been kind of doing it recreationally to stay in shape for track,” Petersen said. “But after I saw that I was like, ‘OK, I really like this, this is something I want to pursue.’”

For more than two hours, Diggins posed for photographs with those who stood in line to meet her and hold the gold medal she described as, “weirdly heavy.”

Diggins thanked the Afton community for supporting not only herself, but all of the up-and-coming skiers in the area.

“This might be the first gold medal we’ve ever had,” Diggens told her supporters. “But I know it will not be the last.”

Brian Halverson is a sportswriter based in Minnesota. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.