Her Gold Was Four Years Ago, but She Never Stopped Leading

PARK CITY, Utah — Gus Schumacher woke up on a late February morning four years ago and immediately noticed the sticky note his mother had left on his computer.

“Watch the race,” it said.

Schumacher knew which race his mother meant: the women’s team sprint at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The race had taken place while he slept, but Schumacher, an aspiring professional cross country skier, did as he was told. And in the dark in Alaska, as he watched Jessie Diggins come off the final turn in South Korea with a burst of power and speed to secure her team’s gold medal — the first c — everything he thought about his future as a competitive racer shifted.

“It absolutely changed my mind-set,” said Schumacher, now a 21-year-old Olympian in this year’s Beijing Games. Just like that, he said, his dream of competing with the best skiers in the world did not seem so far-fetched. “It’s the idea that you can do it, too, if things go right. And I’m not alone in that thinking.”

American athletes have won more than 300 medals in the Winter Olympics. Few, though, have had such a profound effect on a single United States team as the one Diggins, 30, and her now-retired teammate Kikkan Randall earned four years ago. For four decades, American cross-country skiers had trailed far behind their rivals from Scandinavia. Now, in one short video clip, they had all seen that the pinnacle was possible.

Diggins, left, celebrates after winning the gold medal past Stina Nilsson of Sweden in the women’s team sprint freestyle cross-country skiing final at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.Credit…Dmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press

“All those years of waiting and waiting for something to happen, then something big happened,” said Kevin Bolger, another member of the United States team headed to Beijing.

The medal remains a touchstone moment, marking the team’s before and after. In addition to altering the worldview of dozens of American skiers, the victory also thrust Diggins into a rare role for a female athlete: as the de facto captain of a team made up of men and women, and the leader of her sport in the United States.

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She is the skier who organizes the team-building activities during training camps, like watching “The Great British Bake Off” or a Bob Ross video during team painting night, or choreographing yet another team dance. She’s the one who fields teammates’ questions about training and life on the World Cup circuit. She is the one whose success the younger competitors, both men and women, hope to emulate, and the one who badgers ski federation officials to get more support for everyone.

“I want to look back on my career and not have it be just, ‘Wasn’t I great?’” Diggins said during a recent interview in the lobby of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Utah training center, where a 10-foot banner of her hangs from the rafters. “I want to be able to say I used my time wisely. I helped improve the culture of U.S. skiing. I helped grow the sport. I helped grow the team.”

Diggins, a wiry, 5-foot-4-inch spark plug with bright eyes and an infectious smile, did not intend to play such a prominent role. But she can be persistent, especially when it comes to lobbying her federation for the kind of support — financial and otherwise — she and her teammates say they need to compete against better-funded teams.

Kikkan Randall, left, and Diggins won gold medals in the cross-country skiing women’s team sprint in 2018.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

She’s haunted by the early years of her career, when European national teams had budgets for ski wax larger than the entire budget for the U.S. cross-country team. Diggins’s pleas have gotten the team a full-time traveling chef, more physiotherapists, and the money that allows teammates with less lucrative sponsorship deals to focus on training instead of holding down a second job.

She has also won a lot, which certainly helps her voice carry. Diggins claimed her first world championship gold medal in 2013. She has since added three more and 10 World Cup victories; last season she became the first American woman to win cross-country’s overall World Cup title.

Diggins’s unique stature on the U.S. team also may have something to do with the team’s logistics and demographics. As her performances began to peak in recent years, several veterans on the team retired. Suddenly, Diggins was not only the most accomplished skier on the team, but also one of its most experienced.

Also, since all the World Cup races take place overseas, the team’s men and women live, eat, train, travel and compete together from November to March every year. They also meet for off-season training camps. That creates a roving group that is part ski team, part Partridge family.

In recent years, the men on the team, who have yet to excel at the level of Diggins and some of her female teammates, have taken note of how Diggins and the other women prioritize helping one another. That can be as simple as making sure to be on time, or packing a lunch for a teammate who has to get blood work in the morning. But the sense of trust also can involve more nuanced behaviors: bucking up a skier who is having a bad day, or celebrating someone who has a great day even if you have not.

Diggins roller skied at a training camp in Utah last year. She often coordinates team bonding activities, like painting nights, during camps.Credit…Kim Raff for The New York Times

“Jessie has always said that Olympic medal belongs to everyone,” said Bolger, a 27-year-old sprint specialist who has been on the national team the past three years.

No one pays closer attention to Diggins than Julia Kern, a 23-year-old Dartmouth graduate who was her roommate in Europe last season and trains with Diggins in Vermont. Kerns was competing in a lower-tier race in Germany four years ago when Diggins and Randall won the gold medal in Pyeongchang. She and her teammates pushed back a training session so they could watch the race live, then bragged about it to everyone they spoke with that night.

When Kern was first getting to know Diggins, she said, she was eager to learn the ingredients of her secret sauce. Living with Diggins, Kern quickly realized there was no secret: Diggins, she said, eats right, sleeps well, trains hard and does what she needs to do to recover for the next workout. And then she wakes up and does it all over again, day after day after day, believing that the work that produced her gold medal can one day produce another.

Her success has brought higher expectations, and a new level of pressure. Diggins manages it with mental, physical and technical preparation: countless hours watching video, timing drills to improve her classical skiing technique in an effort to become a more formidable all-around skier.

She also has started meditating, so she can calm herself and lower her heart rate before races. She has also honed her visualization skills so she can close her eyes and see every turn of the Olympic course that was built into the side of a punishing hill in Yanqing.

“I can improve in all these little ways,” she said.

“Jessie has always said that Olympic medal belongs to everyone,” said Kevin Bolger, right, a 27-year-old sprint specialist who has been on the national team the past three years.Credit…Kim Raff for The New York Times

And yet she knows how unforgiving the Olympics can be. One slip, one mistake, can be the difference between winning and finishing far off the podiums that make careers, and legends. All she can do, she said, is make sure she is prepared to cross the finish line with no energy left, fully immersed in the “pain cave.”

That is what Scott Patterson, who has trained with Diggins for a dozen years, remembers seeing in Diggins four years ago. He watched from the side of the track in Pyeongchang that day, and then sprinted across the snow to celebrate with Diggins as she crossed the finish line. They celebrated for so long, in fact, that course officials eventually had to shoo the Americans away so they could start the next race.

Three days later, as Patterson lined up for the Olympic 50-kilometer race, he said one thought kept running through his head: The women did it. Now here’s my chance. He finished 11th, the best finish ever for an American at that punishing distance.

The events of that week, and the leadership Diggins has shown since, have recreated a world in which American cross-country skiers know they can be the best on the biggest stage.

“The younger ones,” Patterson said, “they are believing from the beginning.”

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