As the Olympics begin, star skier Jessie Diggins reflects on pressure, uncertainty of COVID-19

Jessie Diggins of the United States celebrates.
Jessie Diggins of the United States celebrates as she crosses the line to win gold during the cross-country ladies' team sprint at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018.
Lars Baron | Getty Images 2018

The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will officially kick off Friday with the opening ceremony at the Bird’s Nest. Minnesota will be represented by hockey players, curlers and skiers, including Olympic gold medal-winning cross country skier Jessie Diggins. The 30-year-old will be competing in her third Olympic Games.

Diggins’s schedule in Beijing is made up of an intense six events over 16 days. The first comes right away on Saturday with the women's skiathlon.

Despite a busy road schedule, Diggins was able to make it back to Minnesota in November to visit her parents. (Her gold medal lives in their basement.) It allowed her a chance to reflect on how far she's come, both for herself and her sport.

Before the Olympics, Diggins spoke to members of the media. Below are highlights from that conversation.

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The following transcript has been slightly edited for clarity. Listen to the full story using the audio player above.

On the pressure Diggins feels in 2022 and her past Olympic experiences

The pressures and expectations [this year] are definitely different. Heading into Sochi, I was coming in as a world champion, but I felt that I didn't have any eyes on me, I didn't have any pressure to medal. It was the wonderful flying-under-the-radar-feeling of: “Yeah, if I have a good race, awesome. Nobody expects anything. If I have a bad race, they're like, ‘Cool, you're young, whatever.’”

I remember getting to go see other events [in Sochi]. And then in Pyeongchang, it was different because I came in with a lot of eyes and pressure and expectations. I never got to go see a single other event because I was racing every single event of ours. It was like race, recover, race, prep, race, prep — it was just this cycle. I never went and saw the coast. I have no idea what South Korea looks like. Someday, I want to go back and see it and experience it. But for me, it was very, very focused.

I know in that way, Beijing will be the same. So for me, it's not a huge shift to be like, “Oh, I'm so bummed I can't go see any other event.” I probably wasn't going to be able to anyway, and I was so worried about getting sick, I probably wasn't going to be going to all the different things that you can do while you're at the games.

I am sad for my younger teammates because I want them to have that first experience. I know it will be a little different. But at the same time, they're young and hopefully will have many [Olympic] Games in their future. So at some point they'll get that experience of watch[ing] bobsled and hockey and figure skating and get that huge team unity feeling because I do think that was pretty cool.

At the last two games, you really felt connected to other sports. One of my favorite things is sitting in the athlete resource center watching a race with the bobsledders and hearing their reactions to our sport — and then watching their sport and them seeing how we react. It was so cool to feel like the whole [of] Team USA was pulling together.

On COVID-19 and uncertainty

Actually, one of the strengths of being part of the U.S. team is that we're on the road so much. When it comes to traveling, not being able to go home, not being able to connect in person with friends and family and loved ones, that's not new for us. We're used to living out of a suitcase, and we're used to having to change travel plans last minute.

So we're kind of used to this more isolated world of COVID because that's the reality for us when we're on the road all winter long racing the World Cup. I think that has perhaps prepared us quite a bit for Beijing.

The other thing that I've been thinking about a lot is the fact that we're really lucky in being a sport that's outdoors, where the track, the snow and the weather [are] always different. So ironically, part of our routine is being ready for anything because even the way the snow felt and the way the wax was in race prep the day before might be different the day of the race. It could snow, it could rain, it could whatever.

You have to be ready for it to be a little unpredictable. I practice visualizing skiing in any condition with any amount of things happening. And then if there are certain things, like certain nutrition products — you keep the constants. But for the most part, I think we're very prepared for the unusual.

On the growth of skiing and the support Diggins feels

I do feel a lot of love and a lot of support, and that's been really, really cool. I think in particular, it's so cool to see the expansion of learning-to-ski programs. Since the last Olympics, there were a ton of new chapters added to the Minnesota Youth Ski League. It's so cool to see that so many families want to get out and try out the sport for themselves and find a way to make winter super, super fun for everyone.

I do feel a ton of love and support, really [even] disconnected from [my] results. And that's what I think is so cool about it. It's very much like: “We're going to love you and support you no matter what. We’re happy for you if you win, but we really don't care. If you don't, we're still going to love you anyway.”

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