Skier Jessie Diggins on next week’s World Cup race – and her new memoir

Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins greets a group of fans.
Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins greets a group of fans during her homecoming parade, April 14, 2018, in Stillwater, Minn.
Matthew Hintz for MPR News

Many of the world's best cross-country skiers will gear up in Minneapolis next week for the final sprint race of the World Cup season. That event will mark the first time in nearly two decades that a World Cup cross-country ski race has been held on American soil.

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer talked with Olympic gold medalist and Afton native Jessie Diggins about the World Cup, and her new memoir, “Brave Enough.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

When we last talked back in 2018, you were hoping to use your newfound platform as an Olympic champ to bring a World Cup event to Minnesota. And I have to be honest with you, when you first said that, I thought, yeah, okay, good luck with that. But you did it. Why was it so important to you?

Yeah, it seemed like this absolutely improbable dream, but we were so passionate about making it happen because there are so many kids growing up in Minnesota who love cross-country skiing. It's part of our state culture. You know, we're a winter state, and we want to embrace all four seasons and find a way to get out and play in the snow. And selfishly, I would love to race in my own country for the first time in my World Cup career. So it seemed like this crazy dream, but there are so many passionate volunteers here, people working tirelessly for years that have made this possible, and it seems crazy that it's only a few days away.

Now, folks looking out the window right now are going to wonder what snow these athletes are going to ski on. I know there's a giant pile of manmade snow ready to go, and when I read your memoir, you write that stockpiling snow is actually quite common for World Cup events these days. That struck me — that was a bit of a surprise.

Yeah, it surprises a lot of people, and the crazy thing is now you can't even put in a bid to host a World Cup if you don't have the capability of manmade snow. It's a scary new reality of our sport, that this is sort of how it has to be.

Jessie Diggins speaks in Duluth
Kalyssa Eilrich (left) applies glitter to Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins' (right) face on Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018 at the Grand Avenue Nordic Center in Duluth, Minn. Eilrich is a skier in Ely, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

I want to ask you a little bit more about that, because in the book you describe the U.S. ski team as being like reverse surfers. You travel all around the world in search of snow to train on, and you were at a village near the Arctic Circle and you found flowers blooming in November. So, how has climate change affected your sport at a professional level?

You know, traveling around to countries that are predominantly supposed to be covered in snow, it's been really shocking and alarming seeing how that's changed even within my competitive career over the last nine years. I would say we're not stupid. Like, we know that we travel for skiing and we know that we're imperfect environmentalists, but we do try to be conscious everywhere possible, and we do try to raise awareness about climate change, because we really do care about the environment that we love and that we want our children and our grandchildren to be able to love. We want them to be able to have a healthy planet, and so we look to find all the little ways that we can impact climate change in a positive way, and we look for the big ways, like calling up our representative, calling our senators and voting for people that we think are going to take it seriously.

Let me ask you about the sport. What are you working on now, as a skier? I mean, is there a goal that you're aiming toward?

Oh man, we are working on everything. I think the crazy part is that when I was young, I used to think, OK, once you become an Olympian, you'll have it all figured out, and then your technique will be perfect, and that'll be that. And that was a very naive thought. There's always something I'm working on, which actually makes it really exciting, because you feel like you're never done growing.

Interesting you say that you thought as a young skier that if you won an Olympic medal, you'd have it all figured out, and obviously, you did help win the country's first-ever Olympic gold in cross-country skiing, with Kikkan Randall, your teammate. In the book, again, [I'm] kind of surprised to say that you keep that medal in a sock drawer.

Yeah.

Why is that?

I do, because — I will say, it's so cool to have that. Having an Olympic medal is kind of like a life bonus. But the point for me was that I don't want to fall back on that one day in Pyeongchang in February. I want to earn the right to be proud of who I am every single day, and so I don't look at the medal. I don't have it out on display anywhere. It's kind of fun for little kids to see, but it really is just a chunk of metal, you know? It's just a fun representation of what all those years of hard work can get you.

Those years of hard work also included a bout living with an eating disorder. You had bulimia that I know you developed in high school, and you wrote about it a lot in the book. What's your hope that young athletes and their coaches are going to get out of reading your story, especially when it comes to that bout of bulimia?

For me, it was really important to write very honestly and in my most raw form about hey, you know, it wasn't this straight, linear path to the Olympics. It wasn't like oh, I worked hard, and then I won. It was important to me to share, here's how I got into this eating disorder. Here's the red flags. Here's the warning signs. Parents, this is what it may look like. Kids, this is what it feels like inside the head of someone with an eating disorder, so if you see yourself in my story, this is the time to reach out for help. And it was important to me to write about how I got out of my eating disorder. I went to the Emily Program for treatment and learned a lot about — you know, I didn't even know it was a mental illness. I thought it was just a behavior problem. I thought I was a bad kid. And so I hope that everyone can learn something from those chapters, because I think, yeah, there's a lot of sadness in those chapters, but there's a lot of hope as well, and so I hope that people take that away from the book.

“Brave Enough,” written with Todd Smith, is out now. A book launch event will be held April 5 at Stillwater Area High School.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.