'Race because you love to race': Jessie Diggins reflects on recent Olympic trip

Cross-Country Skiing - Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Day 4
Jessie Diggins of Team USA celebrates after winning the Bronze medal during the women's cross-country sprint. Diggins also took home a silver medal in the 30-kilometer mass start.
Maddie Meyer | Getty Images

Updated: 10:27 a.m.

After a historic performance at the 2022 Beijing Olympic games, Minnesota’s Jessie Diggins became the most decorated cross country skier in U.S. Olympic history. And she’s already back on the road.

Diggins spoke with Cathy Wurzer from Finland earlier this week, where she’s finishing out the world cup season.

The following is a transcript, edited for clarity. Listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.

Tell us about that last event, the grueling 30-kilometer freestyle race

That was a bit of a roller coaster, emotionally and physically. The day before the race, I woke up and was definitely not in a good place. And I felt just really empty and kind of sick, and like the wind might knock me down if I went outside. So I mostly just stayed in bed the whole day, forcing myself to eat very, very simple foods.

To be honest, it was emotionally really hard, because I had been looking forward to this 30k for a really long time. And I knew I was in the best shape of my life. And I was laying in bed feeling ill and thinking, “Well, this is not the way I had envisioned feeling the day before the race.”

But I got a chance to talk to my fiance and my sports psych and my parents, and they all helped me get my head in the right place and reminded me that, you know, “Forget about the results. You're just going out there to race because you love to race.”

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And I surprised myself by feeling so much better than I thought that I would and being able to just dig so much deeper and go so much harder than I ever have before. I think a lot of that had to do with being in a good headspace. Thanks to my family love.

In your book, you talk about being in the ‘pain cave’ when you're in a race because it's hurting really bad. I'm going to assume that you were definitely in your ‘pain cave’ in that race?

Oh, yeah, I was in the pain cave for a very long time. With something like 17 kilometers to go. Some of my muscles in my legs around my knees started cramping, which is not unusual in a distance race. But usually that would happen in the last 5 kilometers of a race. But when it started happening with 17k to go, and I felt my muscles spasming, I remember thinking “Oh, boy, this is gonna be a wild ride to get to the finish.”

APTOPIX Beijing Olympics Cross Country
Jessie Diggins reacts after crossing the finish line during the women's 30-kilometer mass start free cross-country skiing competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Sunday in Zhangjiakou, China.
Aaron Favila | AP

I think that's what also makes it so special when you do something so hard, just because you think you may be can. Because you want to try to do something that seems impossibly hard. It’s such a cool feeling when you make it to that finish line, because you just find out that you are capable of so much more than you thought you were. It's such an empowering feeling. So even though it was incredibly painful in the moment, it was absolutely worth it.

You won silver and bronze, making some history there. What were the Winter Olympics like for you? Given that spectators were limited, athletes were restricted in their the COVID bubble. What was it like?

I'm trying to process what it was like, because in the moment, I think it felt like you're just trying to keep moving. Like, OK, we did the first race. OK, now we're gonna eat and drink and rest and prepare for the next race. And so you're just constantly rushing from one thing to the next. And I'm only just now kind of taking a moment to stop and look back and be like, “Wow, that was really crazy.”

It was very different from prior Olympics. We were really pretty isolated. We wore masks even within our apartment. The only place we didn't have a mask on was in our room with our roommate. I got almost all of my meals to-go from the dining hall. I ate in there one time, and it freaked me out. And then I started taking all my food to go because I was too scared of having my mask off indoors, with other people around.

So I would say it was a very isolating experience, but at the same time, I think we did a really good job making it special with the teammates that we were living with. We watched a lot of Ted Lasso together, and there were some games of Catan being played and just hanging out and talking and keeping each other company and making sure that we were checking in on one another.

Beijing Olympics Cross Country
Jessie Diggins competes during the women's 30-kilometer mass start free cross-country skiing competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Sunday in Zhangjiakou, China.
Alessandra Tarantino | AP

After such an amazing, worldwide event, is there a letdown at all, emotionally?

Oh, absolutely. And I think it's important to talk a lot about that. My mom used to call it when I was a kid, the post-party blues. You go to a friend's birthday party or a sleepover and you're on such a high and everything's awesome. The next day, it just feels kind of like a bummer, even if it's not really. You can't keep up that kind of high forever.

I think we all experienced this in our lives, whether or not it feels Olympics. Whatever it is, we all experienced those highs, and then that returned to normalcy that can feel like sometimes a bit of a letdown or kind of gone off the edge of this adrenaline cliff, and you have to find a way to catch yourself. And I think that is challenging.

For me, coming back to the World Cup here was a really great way of having a return to what is our normal: being with our team and connecting a lot with my family and friends and my fiance. So I think it is hard because you're on a bit of an adrenaline high for so long. But you need to find a way to make sure you stay grounded with people who really have your back no matter what and who really care about you. Because then it helps you kind of ride out the emotional roller coaster as you come back down.

You're in Finland, and you're back in the World Cup circuit after this break. What are you working toward in the last month of the season?

Honestly, I'm really excited because I think there's been a lot of pressure and a lot of expectations and a lot of build-up toward the Olympics. But at the end of the day, I also just love to ski, and I love to race, and I had a really wonderful ski today with my coach and wax tech, Jason Cork. We went out on these awesome trails. And it’s so fun winding through woods, and it was sunny, and it was beautiful. And I was just thinking like, “Man, I love to do this.” Like I just really love this sport.

It's not always about winning or competing. It's just loving it and finding the joy and being out there and outside with great people. And so this last month of World Cup, I'm just going to be racing for the joy of it.

Listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.

Correction (Feb. 28, 2022): An earlier version of this transcript misidentified Jason Cork. The transcript has been updated.