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Brave Enough: Jessie Diggins Opens Up About Bulimia — And Olympic Triumph — In Her New Book

By Peggy Shinn | March 27, 2020, 11:27 a.m. (ET)

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

 

After Jessie Diggins won a gold medal at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, she did not want to write a book. She thought that the world did not need another ‘I went to the Olympics, and then I won’ book. 

But then Diggins realized that if she shared her whole story—the good, the bad and the really bad—it might help people. She had just appeared in ESPN’s Body Issue and had opened up about her eating disorder. 

“This could be the reason to write a book,” she thought.

Diggins’s book, “Brave Enough,” hit shelves earlier this month and is available for purchase online. It’s a comprehensive, inspiring story about what it takes to be a world-class cross-country skier and how Diggins arrived there. But more importantly, it’s an honest, raw look at Diggins’ eating disorder, then how she confronted it and took steps to recover. 

As Diggins’ gold-medal-winning teammate Kikkan Randall says, it’s “a powerful story that shows that striving for excellence can be essential in sport, yet not even Olympic champions are immune from its unforeseen destructive consequences. With admirable vulnerability, Jessie demonstrates how to be a leader and ‘best teammate’ while also being open to help and support from others.”

For Diggins, “Brave Enough” is a way to “pay it forward and help people and parents and coaches understand [eating disorders] and maybe give some hope and some healing to anyone who’s going through an eating disorder,” she said.

The book starts with an inside look at Diggins’ youth—the bubbly, energetic kid who wanted to do everything “mineself.” Her parents helped instill a love of the outdoors—canoe trips in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters and sledding off the roof (!) of their garage. The anecdotes are fun, and the prose convey her energy, a tribute to Diggins’ co-author Todd Smith. Punctuated with self-deprecating humor, the book reads as if you are sitting on the couch with her as she tells her story. 

Diggins fans will eat up these chapters, learning how Jessie became Jessie. And cross-country skiers and endurance athletes get an inside view at Diggins’ best (and worst) races plus her training (she endearingly calls herself a “ski-loving dork”). When Smith began writing the book with Diggins, he visited her in Stratton, Vermont, and accompanied her on long runs and roller ski sessions, often on a bicycle. 

“By the end of the week, he was like, ‘You guys are nuts, this is ridiculous,’” said Diggins with a laugh. 

But the real meat of “Brave Enough” comes in the chapters where Diggins looks honestly at her middle- and high school years, when the self-described ‘Type A’ perfectionist began cross-country ski racing and balancing academic demands. She details the pressures that high school kids face, from AP classes to college applications to training for sports and, in Diggins’ case, traveling the world for international competition. She competed in her first junior world ski championships when she was a 17-year-old junior in high school.

Driven to perfection, Diggins put pressure on herself and pushed 100 percent in everything she did. By her senior year, parts of her life began to unravel, and she describes in honest detail how her eating disorder first developed—an extra run after practice one day to justify eating a large snack (which her body needed after hard training). Soon, it escalated to bulimia, and with the support of her family, Diggins sought treatment through the Emily Program.

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It’s a reminder that eating disorders can sneak up on anyone, even Olympic gold medalists. Or perhaps especially those who strive to be Olympic gold medalists. 

“You’re trying to be perfect and very Type A, and you find a lot of that in sports, especially cross-country skiing,” Diggins said. “That personality type succeeds, but it’s also at the highest risk.”

In writing “Brave Enough,” Diggins understandably found the chapters on her bulimia the most difficult to write, but also the most meaningful, and the most healing. At the time, she “felt like I was running for my life toward recovery,” she said. But she did not take time to process it. She was anxious to return to the ski world—because that was her safe place. 

“It’s amazing how many details I had blacked out from that time just because it was traumatic for me, and I didn’t want to remember them,” she said. “I could tell you so many details from the months before and the months after but not during.”

To recall the raw details, Diggins looked through her files at the Emily Program. And as she and Smith worked on those chapters, she began to process her recovery.

“As I was writing it, I experienced this ability to grieve for what I had been through as such a young girl and really come to terms with it and heal from it and move on,” she said. “So it was hard, but it was so necessary and very, very healing to write about it.”

Her other challenge in writing “Brave Enough” was recalling specific races, especially at the PyeongChang Games. A medal favorite, Diggins competed in all six women’s races in PyeongChang, winning Olympic gold in the second-to-last event (team sprint). 

The title for the book came from a blog she wrote before the 2018 Games, when she realized that she had to be brave enough to face the pressure of being an Olympic favorite. After the Games, she realized that bravery applies to many parts of life.

“It takes a lot of bravery to ask for help and to decide to go to a recovery program and to decide to put your health first even when it’s not the quote easy choice,” she said.

“Brave Enough seemed a fitting title, along with Grit and Glitter, which was a close second,” she added with a laugh. 

Her favorite parts to write were the funny, often crazy stories of her huge training efforts—called her “Big Stupids” (100 kilometers on roller skis anyone?)—and some of the crazy travel that Diggins and her teammates have experienced on the world cup tour, like the time they saw a dead man pulled from a frozen river in Russia.

Mostly, what Diggins’ book conveys is the fact that even Olympic-gold-medal-winning athletes are human, not untouchable demi-gods.

“When people are playing a highlight reel of your career, it’s easy to overlook the tough races and people think, ‘Oh, you just had this line right to the top,’ Diggins said. “But really, nope, we have struggles just like everyone has with any job. I think it’s really important to humanize the experience.”

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

 

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Jessie Diggins