Diggins' golden Olympic spirit inspires skiers at the 'Birkie' and beyond

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 Feb. 21, 2018.
Lars Baron | Getty Images file

While Jessie Diggins was thousands of miles away in South Korea, her spirit loomed large at the country's largest cross-country ski race this weekend in Hayward, Wis.

She called to wish skiers well before the American Birkebeiner began, thousands of skiers chanted her name before starting, and Diggins' trademark glitter was sparkling on the cheeks of many competitors.

"I think it's just so cool how much she's influenced everybody in the Nordic community, because she's so positive, and knows how to be a good role model," said Hannah Brown, 17, of Stillwater, Minn. "It's amazing how many kids know about her and know her for that positive energy, and her dancing — and her glitter," Brown said.

Brown was one of six students from the Stillwater Area High School cross-country ski team — where Diggins got her start skiing — who were among the more than 13,000 racers who competed in Birkie races.

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Stillwater girls cross country ski team wears glitter, Diggins-style.
The Stillwater Area High School girls' state championship cross-country ski team wears glitter on their cheeks, Jessie Diggins-style, at their state meet Feb. 15, 2018, at Giant's Ridge in Biwabik, Minn.
Courtesy of Kris Hansen

Diggins was just a seventh-grader when Stillwater coach Kris Hansen said she realized she was something special. It was the conference championship, and Diggins was not in the varsity lineup. But 15 minutes before the race, a skier got sick.

"I went up to Jessie, who was sitting there eating gummi bears, and sitting on the floor, and I said, 'Hey Jessie, do you want to race varsity?' And she jumped up and said 'Yes!'" Hansen recalled. Diggins didn't have time to warm up, so she had to go straight to the starting line.

"And she got out there and put on her skis and she won the race," Hansen said. "At that point I thought, 'huh, there might be something to this kid.'"

She would never lose a high school race for another five years. Hansen said other teams figured they would need a 3 1/2-minute lead in a relay race to be able to hold off Diggins over the final 3-kilometer leg.

Still, she admitted, she could never have predicted the success Diggins would achieve.

"No, nobody could. Because it would be like saying do you think that pig over there is going to learn to fly? Because at the time Jessie was in seventh grade, the idea a woman on the U.S. ski team was going to win an Olympic gold medal was literally absurd."

Stillwater girls and boys ski teams rollerski with Jessie Diggins.
Stillwater Area High School girls and boys cross-country ski teams hold a roller-skiing training session with Jessie Diggins, center, on Nov. 14, 2017.
Courtesy of Kris Hansen

At the time it was considered a huge success if an American skier finished in the top half of an international race.

But it isn't just Diggins' success that has inspired so many Nordic skiers, and non-skiers alike.

It's her grit, the fierceness in her skiing, the glitter she wears on her cheeks, and how she gives absolutely everything she has in a race, until she collapses, her lungs gasping for air, after crossing the finish line.

Hansen said Diggins spoils the Stillwater high school ski team. She stops by and trains with them when she's in town. She comments on their Facebook posts.

But more than anything she inspires them. They read Diggins' blog before races and quote it to each other, Hansen said.

At the state meet, when they finished, they didn't yet know the results of the race, and one of the seniors looked at the team, Hansen recalled, and she said, "It's like Jessie said, if we raced as hard as we can, then we need to be happy. And everybody said, 'yeah, you're right.' "

And as it turned out, they were really happy — they won the state meet.

And they won it, wearing glitter on their cheeks, Jessie Diggins-style.

Jessica Diggins of the United States reacts as she wins gold.
Jessie Diggins reacts after winning gold at the Olympics.
Lars Baron | Getty Images

But they almost weren't allowed to do it, because Minnesota state high school rules didn't allow it.

So last year, Stillwater student Siri Bohacek — coach Hansen's daughter — started a petition. She got skiers to sign it, and their parents and coaches. Then she sent it to Diggins, who signed it, along with the entire U.S. cross-country ski team.

Then Bohacek sent it to state officials, and got "a very begrudging retraction," she said.

Everyone wore glitter at the state meet, and again this year, she said, "to remind ourselves of the messages that Jessie gives us, that skiing is fun, and a team effort that we're lucky to do."

Bohacek's twin brother Carl said the boys team at Stillwater is equally inspired by Diggins.

At the state meet they told themselves they would push themselves as hard as they could, to know that they've given everything. And when they crossed the finish line, they all collapsed, "the classic Jessie finish," Bohacek said.

It turned out they had finished second, only two points out of first place. But Bohacek said that nobody cared.

"Because nobody could have pushed harder across that line, and we worked so hard about not leaving anything out there."

Something Diggins would no doubt be proud of.