By Peggy Shinn | March 27, 2019, 12:05 p.m. (ET)

Jessie  Diggins competes at the FIS Cross Country Ski World Cup Final on March 23, 2019 in Quebec City, Canada.

 

QUEBEC CITY — Just over a year ago, Jessie Diggins won the United States’ first Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing with Kikkan Randall in the team sprint. It was a defining moment, not just for Diggins and Randall, but for the sport. 

Since then, Diggins has made her mark in other ways. In June, the 27-year-old opened up about an eating disorder that she battled in high school. She gained sponsorship from The Emily Program this winter; the program helped her regain a healthy body image and good eating habits when she was a teen. After she revealed her eating disorder, Diggins heard from parents and other skiers that her honesty has inspired them to find help.

Then this past fall, Diggins announced that her home state of Minnesota would host a cross-country skiing world cup next March. Minneapolis was awarded the event due in part to Diggins’ lobbying efforts.

“It’s a way for me to give back to the community, to give more than I took from the sport, and it’s something set in motion that’s going to outlive me,” she said during the world cup final mini tour in Quebec City last weekend. “Honestly, that is what I’m most proud of [this season].”

On skis, Diggins is proud of how she has navigated expectations this winter in the wake of her Olympic gold medal.

“After the Olympics, I think people are just like, great, now you’ll just go win everything, and that’s not how it is,” she said. “Persevering through some pretty crushing media pressure, through a lot of other people putting expectations on me, and having had a really busy year, I’m really proud of navigating all that.

“We’ve had definite ups and downs. Being able to be happy and still enjoy racing is – it might sound stupid – actually what I’m most proud of.”

At times this season, Diggins has had great races where the results have met the expectations heaped on her by others. She led the eight-day Tour de Ski for a couple of days in January, won a world cup sprint right before world championships, and finished third in a 10-kilometer freestyle in mid-March. 

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Other times, she has had races where her efforts have not been reflected on the results sheet. Like in Quebec City, where she fought with grit and determination in front of throngs of fans through a three-day mini tour but did not end up on the podium.

She crashed in the freestyle sprint semifinal on Friday when Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla moved in on her as they rounded a 180-degree turn. The two went down and took Sadie Bjornsen with them. The three quickly untangled themselves, and while Kalla finished 16 seconds behind the leaders, Diggins and Bjornsen made heroic effort to get back to the front of their heat. In a photo finish, Bjornsen nipped Diggins at the line and moved on to the final. 

In the 10K classic mass start race on Saturday, Diggins struggled with the wax on her skis and crashed on one of the treacherous downhills where crusty snow broke down into sugar. Again, she fought her way to the finish far from the lead.

“I’m proud of myself for fighting as hard as I could,” she said. “I did the best I could with the tools I had. It would have been fun to not have one of my worst races of the year in front of my parents but that’s the beauty of it. They love me for how I race and for getting up from a crash and fighting as hard as I can. They don’t care what the result is. They just want to see me go as hard as I can.” 

Then in the final 10K pursuit on Sunday, Diggins leapt from 23rd to 14th overall in mini tour standings after skiing the fourth fastest time of the day. (Sweden’s Stina Nilsson, whom Diggins outsprinted for the Olympic gold medal last year, won the Quebec City World Cup mini tour).

“It’s always fun to end your season on a good race,” she said. “I was just going after time of day. I wasn’t really worried about where I placed in the overall. I just wanted to put together the best race I could.”

As for that Olympic gold medal, Diggins is proud but does not want it to define her. It has not changed the way she competes on the world cup. It has only changed the way the public views her.

“Nobody really cares on the world cup,” she said. “There’s Olympic medalists floating around all over the place. So that’s kind of cool because it’s not a big deal here. At any given point, half of the red group [top 30] has one.”

For Diggins, it’s about the fight.

“So, while it was a cool thing [to win an Olympic gold medal], I’m not thinking about it this year because I don’t want to live my life based on one Thursday last year at 7 p.m.,” she continued. “I don’t think about records or wins or athletes. I just go out there and do the very best I can with the tools I have on that day. That’s what I’m focused on.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. Her book, “World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team,” was published in February 2018.