After more than 60 kilometers of racing over 10 days, including the last 3,500 meters up the grueling “Final Climb” at Italy’s Val di Fiemme, Jessie Diggins crossed the finish line of the 2021 Tour de Ski having reserved just enough energy to let out a short scream that landed somewhere between pure joy and utter exhaustion before collapsing to the ground in trademark cross-country skier fashion.
She had done it. At the end of a long series of — as Diggins described it — “puzzle pieces finally fitting together,” the culmination of efforts made over the years, months, and days by family, teammates, coaches, wax technicians, physical therapists, massage therapists, nutritionists, and the seemingly boundless energy of the 29-year-old herself, an American had won the Tour de Ski.
Established in 2006 as an eight-stage race over 10 days, the Tour de Ski is one of the most coveted prizes in cross-country skiing, and after becoming the only U.S. racer to reach the podium in the FIS World Cup event in 2018, Diggins had quite literally reached the mountaintop in 2021.
Afterward, she laughed thinking about her moment at the finish line.
“I was just in so much pain,” she admitted. “It was sort of like relief, I’d made it. Joy because I knew that I’d won, because [second-placed Russian racer Yuliya Stupak] who was within 54 seconds of me, I knew I’d beaten her on the climb, so I knew 100 percent this was it.”
The full scope of her accomplishment, however, having charged full speed through yet another challenge that would’ve seemed impossible only a few years ago for a U.S. skier, didn’t sink in until she reached her coaches.
“That’s when it hit me, because it was more than just me,” said Diggins, who also won the first U.S. Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing alongside teammate Kikkan Randall at PyeongChang in 2018. “Our whole team had put so much into this, so that’s where I just burst into tears, and had a little ugly-cry right there.”
The tears were justified, both by the weight of the accomplishment, and by the road taken to get there.
Months earlier, as the world was coming to grips with the terrifying spread of COVID-19, the cross-country World Cup season — like so many sports globally — was put on hold. Diggins, who lives in Europe for months every year when racing, was barely able to return to her U.S. home in South Boston.
“My fiance, Wade, lives and works in Boston, and so I went there sort of right before things everywhere went crazy,” Diggins recalled. “We just hunkered down in Southie.”
Her experience mirrored so many, both in Boston and around the world. Reeling from the pandemic’s impact, Diggins quickly fell into a new routine of spending time with Wade while getting some much needed rest. She found exercise in online yoga, and, as she succinctly described it, “online everything.”
Feeling lucky to escape the immediate threat of the virus, Diggins also thinks her time in lockdown provided an unforeseen silver lining.
“Really being able to focus on each other and family, that’s been really special for me,” she said of her fiance (who proposed in the spring).
By May, the two were able to move up to Stratton, Vermont, where Diggins spends time each year for training.
Even amid the ongoing threat of COVID-19, Diggins retained an optimism that’s become a trademark asset in a sport requiring incalculable mental toughness.
“I feel like we were in such a fortunate bubble there where we could train as a team and really help each other and learn from each other and push each other,” Diggins explained. “Also I could still spend that time with Wade, so it really felt like the best of all worlds.”
Yet by the time the new season began, and Diggins traveled back to Europe, it was hardly under similar circumstances as the previous year. New COVID-19 protocols changed virtually every part of the process for skiers, who — much like athletes in any sport — are creatures of habit.
Other than her roommate, fellow U.S. skier Julia Kern, Diggins wears a mask around everyone else when she’s not racing. So much of the normal routine has changed to limit the risk of the virus.
“It’s been different because normally as a team we would have game nights, and hang out with each other, and watch movies together in our rooms when we’re resting,” said Diggins. “We don’t even go in each other’s rooms at all now.”
“And also normally we would hang out with other teams as well,” added Diggins. “I have a bunch of friends on all the other teams. So that’s been different because of course we’re not going to go hang out with any other team right now.”
For Diggins especially, these restrictions have been difficult. As someone who clearly enjoys both supporting and being supported by fellow skiers — thriving in the community of cross-country skiing — the much more solitary requirements of the 2020-2021 season have been a challenge.
But as ever, Diggins found moments of optimism. Even though the Norwegian team didn’t race at this year’s Tour due to the threat of COVID-19, Diggins found herself getting support from racers who are both competitors but also friends.
“I’ve been getting so many texts from so many of the girls saying like, ‘You’ve got this, I’m cheering for you, we’re behind you,’” said Diggins. “It’s been really cool to see I’ve got people from every corner of the world saying we’ve got your back, we’re stoked for you, we know how hard you work for this.”
Her success, as she has repeatedly and enthusiastically prefaced, has simply been at the end of a long line of supporters.
“I keep shouting out the team because I really feel like nobody accomplishes anything important in life alone,” Diggins affirmed. “You need a team around you to get the big things done, so for me this team is what really helps me and inspires me and I’ve always loved skiing so much because of the sport, because of how you can challenge yourself, but also because of the people who are in it.”
In the 2021 edition of the Tour, Diggins was far from alone. Along with an increasingly capable U.S. support staff, the team itself has risen in strength. In back-to-back stages earlier in the race, Diggins finished first while teammate Rosie Brennan finished second. It was an unprecedented achievement for the Americans.
And for Diggins, who often spends time in her offseason helping younger skiers at the Stratton Mountain School, it’s part of a longer process that, as she noted, “feels bigger than just me.”
Her ultimate goal, she noted, was to help set a tradition for other U.S. skiers to follow.
“I think it’s cool to show them that I’m nothing special, really,” said Diggins. “I just have great support and a great team and I work really hard, so if I can do it, they definitely can too. And I just hope that they know that.”