Jessie Diggins perseveres on skis and in life
Interview with a champion
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American
Jessie Diggins smiled, laughed, was exuberant throughout the entire interview; she seemed happy to answer questions. America’s best women’s cross-country skier ever is leading an evolution in the sport in the United States. She may be stubborn and gritty in training and competition, and there may be two e’s and an i in Jessie, and two i’s in Diggins, but there is no ‘I’ or “ego” in Jessie Diggins. The Afton, Minn., native is unabashedly unselfish despite being the first American—female or male—to win an Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing in 2018, and the first American to win a season World Cup in 2021.
Her impact reaches to stars in other sports. American Alpine skier and world champion Mikaela Shiffrin says, “Jessie has one of the most infectiously positive and bubbly personalities of anyone I have ever met. That, combined with her fierce drive and unwavering grit, is what makes her an inspiration to so many people, including myself.”
Times are good for the 31-year-old Diggins. She’s among the elite in her sport. She was talking via Zoom, June 13, during a break from training with her club team, SMS T2, in Stratton, Vt. Diggins loves the camaraderie among team members—club and national—and how they push each other. Diggins recently celebrated her first wedding anniversary. Her husband, Wade Poplawskei, is from Winnipeg, Manitoba, played ice hockey at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., and now lives and works in Boston.
“My husband is so loving, caring, and understands me, my sport, and what it takes,” said Diggins. “I’m just really lucky to have him. We’re commuting a lot.”
Norway House in Minneapolis awarded her with its Going Viking award, which embodies traits such as endeavor, culture, knowledge, purpose, self-governance, and modesty—even though she’s not of Norwegian descent.
“I need to disclose that I’m not actually Norwegian,” she said, laughing. “Both my parents are from Canada. I want to make sure I’m straight up about that. I feel very honored to be recognized by the Norway House. I’ve spent a lot of my life over in Norway, just because of the nature of our job, being on the road, training, and racing. I’ve had the great fortune to experience skiing in a lot of different parts of Norway and getting the chance to race in a lot of different areas around the world. It has a special place in my heart so I feel really honored to receive this award.”
There’s the brown cheese. “I love brown cheese,” she said. “I like the blue packaging. I really like the Christmas edition that has nutmeg and cardamon.”
Behind the smiles and exuberance is a Jessie Diggins story, not all of it pretty. She gushes about growing up in Minnesota, and uses words “lucky” and “cool” a lot. Her father learned about cross-country skiing while playing hockey with Finns in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He fell in love with it and got his wife to fall in love with it.
“When I was born, they kept going out on the trails every weekend, and they’d bring me in their backpack,” she said. “I thought it was so cool to grow up being out on the trails. Every weekend, we would go and explore a different trail system. This is another wonderful thing about where I grew up. There’s so many different places to ski. They’re very accessible, very affordable. I grew up with the Minnesota Youth Ski League. When I was 3 or 4, I got my own little pair of three pin binding skis and my own little pair of poles. I thought that was really cool.”
While in the backpack, she would tug at her father’s hair to get him to go faster. “I learned that you tell sled dogs to ‘mush.’ I would say ‘mush,’ like he was my own personal sled dog, so that was pretty funny.”
Diggins attended Stillwater High School, from the seventh to 12th grade. There were 120 members of the cross-country skiing team. It was in that setting she learned one of the things she likes best about cross-country skiing: inclusivity.
“We had so many wonderful volunteer coaches, because cross-country skiing is part of the Nordic culture and Nordic culture is very much part of where I grew up,” she said. “We really thrived in that environment and a really awesome team culture. All the parents help. Everyone’s welcome. Unlike sports where you’re competing for playing time and might have to spend time sitting on a bench, in cross-country skiing, every kid gets to start every race. Every kid has an equal opportunity to get out there and race around that 5K loop as fast as they can. There’s something really empowering about that and it really builds a cool culture of working hard and supporting each other.”
As a high school senior, juggling schoolwork and competitions (she missed 60 school days, but received great support from teachers), and her perfectionism, Diggins developed an eating disorder, bulimia, and mental health issues. She revealed her trials and tribulations in her 2020 book, Brave Enough, as well as the fun times she’s had as an international competitor.
“The analogy that I learned at the Emily Program [in Spokane, Wash.], where I received care for my eating disorder, was that genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger,” she said. “That really made sense to me because an eating disorder is a mental health issue. It’s something where you might be primed to have one. It’s not your fault. It’s not something you did, but certain factors in your life might make it more likely to surface at some point. One may never end up having one. For someone else, it surfaces when they’re 10 years old, which is really tough. For me, it was the combination of being a super Type-A personality, very perfectionistic. If you said do up to eight intervals, I’m definitely doing eight, maybe nine. That’s how I’m wired.
“Combine that with being an elite athlete in an endurance sport and you have a perfect cocktail to bring forth this eating disorder. That experience and learning how to get help for it from the Emily Program, and learning all these tools to put in my toolbox to deal with stress and anxiety, and all the other emotions that the eating disorder was a coping tool for, was huge for me. It changed my life and now I’m a way better person. Having come through the other side of that was the motivation for writing the book. There’s some really fun race stories in there, but the real motivation was creating an opportunity for people to get inside the head of someone with an eating disorder so that they can find compassion, empathy and understanding. Maybe parents of a child who’s suffering from an eating disorder reads the book. It might help them find a way to connect to their child and ideas for different ways we can reach out and help them get help from professionals.”
More athletes in various sports are stepping up saying they have anxiety or other mental health problems.
“There are many myths around eating disorders that create this web of stigma, shame and secrecy, which is the environment in which eating disorders thrive,” said Diggins. “Unfortunately, when you feel like you can’t talk about something, it’s really hard to get help for something if you feel like no one’s talking about it. Then, you start to think it’s just me. Unfortunately, our reality is that statistically everyone is either going to know someone who’s had an eating disorder or have one themselves. They also don’t discriminate. There’s this myth that it affects skinny, white, wealthy teenage girls. That’s the picture on the brochure for eating disorders. In reality they affect everyone, different ages, 8 to 88, any race, gender expression. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or who you are. Talking about it and removing some of those stigmas around eating disorders, we hope to make it easier for people to reach out. They are common in endurance sports, where there might be a lot of added external pressure, to look a certain way, to be a certain body composition. Those things are not helpful in terms of healing from an eating disorder.”
At the beginning of Brave Enough, Diggins recalls a family camping trip at 12 years old, when she insisted on carrying her canoe herself, portaging (“carrying between two navigable waters”). Her father said she could if he first showed her how to do it. As a toddler, she would say, “I do it mineself.” She realizes that this independence and confidence is a two-edged sword. It can help with competition. All that confidence disappeared when she became bulimic, “..and it would take a lot of digging to bring that brave little girl back to the surface.” She had to ask for help and realized she didn’t have to do things herself and wasn’t alone when she had teammates, family, and now Wade.
Shiffrin added to her review of the book on Amazon: “I never realized just how inspiring she truly is until I read this book.” Former teammate Kikkan Randall, with whom she won the Olympic gold medal: “… I have never been more proud of my teammate and friend…” and former Olympic track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee: “…she shares a raw, heart-wrenching, nothing-held-back look at the struggles she went through to succeed. It’s an inspiring story, worthy of gold.”
Diggins has a large support network that includes her national team (women and men) and club teammates, as well as her international competitors, especially the Norwegians.
Diggins has an interesting perspective on racing and appreciates what her career has given her off the track that is more important.
“I’ve formed many very meaningful friendships with the Norwegian girls because we all have similar hopes, dreams, work ethic and life experiences,” said Diggins. “Heidi Weng and I go back to World Juniors, 2008 or 2009. When I trained with them, we formed Team 91, all the girls born in 1991. It’s fun because we’ve all had this experience being the baby of the team, just trying to break in, and then having breakout years.
“Now, we’re the older ones on the team. We’ve had this awesome opportunity to get to know each other. We can relate because we’re going through similar phases and struggles of life at the same time. I see them as friends, inspiration, incredible competitors. You always try to win the race, but when someone else wins it, I’m genuinely happy for them because I know them, like them, and think they’re honest, hardworking competitors. They’ve earned it. When I win, I feel that they are genuinely happy for me.
“There are so many variables that you can’t control in ski racing. The snow, the course, your skis, the wax is different. I think more, ‘I’m gonna try to beat the course.’ All you can control is skiing a good hard race the best that you can, learn the lessons from the race and then take that forward into the next race. It’s a very humbling sport. That’s one of the things I really like about it. Nobody’s too cool in cross-country skiing because everyone collapses in the snow at the finish line and has drool over their face. It really brings you back down to earth, just reminds you that everyone’s working hard. When we cheer for each other, it’s about, they tackled a really tough course, and isn’t that awesome?”
So has been the rise of American women’s cross-country skiing. In addition to Diggins, Rosie Brennan was fourth in the World Cup standings in 2021 and in the top 10 in 2023.
“We’re putting in the work and finally getting more resources to help with it,” explained Diggins. “When I first came onto the World Cup circuit, our entire operational budget for the entire year was less than the wax budget for the Norwegian team. We’re the only country in cross-country skiing that does not provide government funding. There are definite differences in the ability of teams to have all the resources that they need in order to compete on that really large scale. Thanks to the support of really passionate fans and awesome sponsors, we’re able to have more resources in order to compete on a more even footing.
“It’s an unfortunate reality of the sport that it’s not just your athletic ability. There are different variables, but that’s also what makes it very cool because you do it as a team. When I won the world championships this year, that was just as much of a victory for all the coaches, all the wax techs, all the people who donated to get us that wax truck. That was their medal too. I think it’s really cool that when Americans succeed that way, it’s because of other Americans being willing to invest in their success and support them.”
Also see: US skier Jessie Diggins “Going Viking” in the June 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.
This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.