When cross-country skier and Minnesota native Jessie Diggins heads to the Olympics next month, she could help break a longstanding drought. It's been more than 40 years since an American has medaled in cross-country skiing — and no American woman ever has.
This will be the second Olympics for Diggins, 26, and in the four years since Sochi, she's climbed to third in World Cup rankings. In early January, she became the first American skier to medal at Europe's punishing Tour de Ski.
"My first time at the Olympics, it was really eye-opening," Diggins says. "I don't think I blinked once the entire time. I was just soaking it all in, it was so exciting.
"And obviously I wanted to race fast, but this time around going into the Olympics, I know exactly what to expect. I'm racing at a whole other level than I was four years ago."
Diggins grew up in Afton, and says that as a child, her parents would take her along in a backpack when they went out skiing. She caught the racing bug later on, when she joined the ski team at Stillwater High School.
"What really swayed me is I started qualifying for Junior World Championships and international race trips, and I got over to Europe and saw that this sport is huge over there," she says. "I mean, when I finally made it to World Championships, there were 50,000 people lining the course, camping in the woods, bonfires everywhere — it was so cool."
Diggins says the crowds give her energy — and online, her social media pages are packed with well-wishes from fans. But in races, when she's pushing herself kilometer after kilometer, she goes deep inside her own head, to a place she calls "the pain cave."
"It's that very special place where you have lactic acid building up, it feels like your lungs are on fire, your legs are burning, your arms are burning, just everything hurts," she explains. "But you have to figure out how to keep going and how to motivate yourself not to slow down. And that's something that I think is my superpower."
Diggins has trained for years to get to this level. But she realizes that to some people watching the Olympics, cross-country skiing might look like athletes just out "striding in the woods." There's more to the sport than that, she says.
"When you watch, you should definitely watch the downhills and see who's gliding past who, and whose skis are fast, and how that's going to work out when it comes down to a sprint out at the finish," she says. "And so I think if you take a few minutes to watch it, you can get hooked pretty quick."