‘The most special weekend of my career’: Jessie Diggins' triumphant Minnesota homecoming

A cross-country skier celebates after a race
Jessie Diggins celebrates after finishing third in the women's 10K race on Sunday at the Stifel Loppet Cup World Cup cross-country ski event in Minneapolis.
Federico Modica | NordicFocus | Getty Images

It was a historic weekend for cross country skiing here in Minnesota. The Loppet Foundation in Minneapolis hosted the Nordic Skiing World Cup — the first time the United States has hosted the event in more than 20 years.

Snow hit Theodore Wirth Park for the first time this winter just a few days before the 40,000-person event, which sold out within a day last fall. If that wasn’t a win enough, hometown hero and Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins from Afton was set to race wearing the gold bib, which signifies that she leads in points at the World Cup.

On Sunday she earned a third place finish in the 10-kilometer freestyle race. Jessie Diggins joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer for a post-race debrief.

The following is a transcription of the audio heard using the player above, lightly edited for clarity

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You didn’t win this weekend. But it looked as though you had a blast. Tell us about it.

Nobody had more fun than me in the entire world. This was a career dream come true. And this is something that I had been wanting and hoping for and wishing for, for years and years and years.

This weekend was the coolest, most emotional and most special weekend of my entire ski career — and that includes all three Olympics, all the World Championships, everything, this was so much bigger than all of that because getting to race at home and seeing my whole family out there and all these amazing families and kids out cheering on the side of the trail.

I mean, there’s no better feeling out there.

A cross-country skier celebates after a race
Jessie Diggins celebrates after finishing third in the women's 10K race on Sunday.
Federico Modica | NordicFocus | Getty Images

You worked so hard to get this event to come to Minnesota. I cannot even imagine the work that you had to do on top of doing your usual training.

I have to say, I am so proud and so grateful and so impressed by the Loppet Foundation and all the partners who made this happen. It was a tough winter and they had to work so hard and they were so smart and so diligent on making the snow possible for this race.

We wouldn’t have been able to do this if they hadn’t put in all that work and there’s so many volunteers. The amount of people that had to work so hard to make this happen is mind blowing. I think that’s what made me cry for like the ninth time on Saturday because it was just so cool knowing how many people made this come to life.

What was the course like?

This is something most people don’t know but a lot of the times at the World Cup, we aren’t skiing on pristine courses. It is oftentimes artificial snow, it’s often falling apart, it has been groomed too many times so the snow isn’t bonding anymore, and it becomes kind of this sugary, slushy pit.

This was an amazing course to ski on. They did such a good job, they were so smart and the way they prepared it, the way they packed the new snow down on top and let it stay on the top layer — it was a fair, fast, firm course and everyone was so so impressed.

A cross-country skier takes part in a race
Jessie Diggins skis in the women's 10K race on Sunday.
Federico Modica | NordicFocus | Getty Images

Did you have a plan for your races this weekend?

My biggest hope and dream was just getting to race in my own country and getting to race in the state of Minnesota for the first time since I was 19 years old so I felt like I’d already won before I even put the bib on to be totally honest with you.

My biggest goal was to just enjoy it. I just wanted to soak it in, I didn’t want to put pressure on myself because I wanted to be able to just ski around that course and feel those fans and the love and the passion and the energy and just feel everyone getting to share in this together.

I feel like I really got a chance to do that. Those warm-up labs were the coolest kilometers I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It was really emotional.

I had friends from other countries like athletes from many other countries and coaches who were pulling out their phones mid warm-up, like stopping their race warm-up for the World Cup, to pull out their phone and video, because it was so incredible and so impressive to see so many fans screaming on the side of the trail.

So my plan for the weekend was to just absorb all of it, and just enjoy the moment. And of course, I wanted to race my heart out, but I wasn’t focused on results. I was just focused on enjoying the process and crossing that finish line with nothing left in the tank.

It was fun to see your U.S. teammate Gus Schumacher, clinching our country’s first Men’s World Cup win since 1983.

Yeah, it has been 41 years since the U.S. men won a World Cup race in distance. Oh my gosh, I am so proud of Gus. I mean, we’re such a tight team. We’re like a family and so I’ve been watching him put in the work for so many years.

An hour before my race started, I was just sobbing and crying so hard, because I was so happy for him, the whole team — it was so emotional to get to share that moment, and to see someone have a career breakthrough moment something that you you work towards for your whole life. I’m just so grateful that we got to be there and celebrate with him.

Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins greets a group of fans.
Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins greets a group of fans during her homecoming parade in Stillwater.
Matthew Hintz for MPR News | 2018

How is this your first ever Birkie?

Well, all of our World Cups until this year, have been in Europe. And so I haven’t been in the U.S. in the middle of the winter for over a decade now. This is kind of the year that the stars aligned and we had a break in the World Cup calendar right after these races here at Theodore Wirth.

It just sort of worked out that for the first time I was going to be able to actually do the Birkie. So, I’m so excited. This is a race that I’ve grown up watching, grown up being part of, I’ve done the course, I have seen my parents do the Birkie, so it’s been a big part of my family’s winter for as long as I can remember. And I am finally going to join the tradition.

Do you have some kind of recovery time in this week before you are going to race the Birkie?

My husband came here this weekend and we got to spend some time together because he wasn’t able to be in Europe this winter, we were waiting on his green card which he finally got. So he wasn’t able to leave the U.S. so I finally get to have a week with him which I’ve been looking forward to for months, and we’re just gonna chill and relax and just have some downtime.

We’re gonna go back to Afton with my family and cuddle the dogs and then we’re gonna head up to the Birkie.

Cross-country skiers take part in a race
Jessie Diggins (in front) and other cross-country skiers compete in the individual sprint event on Saturday.
Federico Modica | NordicFocus | Getty Images

What’s your reaction to some of these races being modified because of climate change and the absence of snow?

I have to say it makes me even more proud to be serving on the board of Protect our Winters. I’m one of their athletes on the Athlete Alliance. It’s important to be able to talk about climate change because it is a reality.

And, you know, for me looking around this weekend seeing 40,000 fans, seeing all these kids who are so fired up to go ski, and so inspired and so excited to go enjoy winter, it’s a good reminder of why it’s so important for us to keep focusing on all the things that we can do, both policy wise and personal action wise to make a difference.

We want to protect the sport for the next generation and the one after that. I want all these kids to be able to go out there and ski their own Birkie someday, so it’s very important.

Do you think that the message is getting through?

I think so. We were able to actually have a panel after the World Cup race with Protect our Winters, and talk a little bit about why this is important and how people can learn more and get involved. I think it is something that we’re all embracing, you know, this is everyone's planet, and so it’s everyone’s job to do what they can.

Jessie Diggins shows off her gold medal.
U.S. Olympic cross country skier and Stillwater native Jessie Diggins shows off her gold medal during a press conference inside the Minnesota State Capitol.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

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