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Jessie Diggins Caps Off Historic Season With World Cup Title

Jessie Diggins holds a pair of International Ski Federation World Cup crystal globes, one for overall cross-country winner and one for the distance title.
Team USA, courtesy
Jessie Diggins holds a pair of International Ski Federation World Cup crystal globes, one for overall cross-country winner and one for the distance title.

Jessie Diggins was crowned the International Ski Federation's World Cup winner over the weekend. The 29-year-old cross-country skier is a Minnesota native who trains at her adopted home in Stratton, Vt. But simply noting that Diggins won the World Cup just scratches the surface of her accomplishments in a record-setting season.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Peggy Shinn, an author and freelance writer who’s covered Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins and other winter sports for TeamUSA.org, and for her 2018 book World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women's Cross-Country Ski Team. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Put Jessie Diggins' accomplishments in context for us. This is not just a first place win for the year. She got a first place win for the season, but there are some other “firsts” here to talk about. How big a deal is this?

Peggy Shinn: I'm going to put it into a context that I think you'll like: Jessie winning the overall [International Ski Federation’s] World Cup this season was like the Boston Red Sox winning the 2004 World Series.

I do like that, very much. You’re right.

The U.S., in cross-country skiing, we're not a big country in that sport. There aren't that many states where you can cross-country ski in the U.S. You know, [there's] Alaska, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire.

Vermont is very lucky. We have two of the top cross-country training programs in the country here, one at Stratton [Mountain School] and one in Craftsbury [Outdoor Center]. It speaks for what Vermont has, that she came from Minnesota to train here.

The overall World Cup is usually dominated by the Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, the Russians. And for Jessie to win this year, it was huge. You know, I think some of us saw it coming, because Jessie is such a talented athlete, but the fact that she could pull it off this year when they had so many challenges, I think speaks volumes.

US Nordic Ski Team member Jessie Diggins looks over her shoulder to smile, during the womens relay at the 2021 FIS Cross Country World Championships in Germany.
Credit Tom Horrocks / U.S. Ski & Snowboard
Jessie Diggins while competing in the womens relay during the 2021 FIS Cross Country World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany.

And she's the first American woman to win the overall FIS Cross-country World Cup title, is that right?

That is correct. Bill Koch won it in 1982, but this is the first time women have done well. Traditionally, until the last 10 years or so, U.S. women were tending to finish in the 30s and 40s in results. So the U.S. team has really come a long way in the past decade.

She was able to win this title “a little bit early.” Explain this for our listeners. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some races were canceled. And basically, with the remaining races left, as I understand it, Diggins had an insurmountable lead. She couldn't be caught because of that. But what was the likelihood that she would have been caught, anyway, even if they were able to get those other races in?

Pretty unlikely. The races that were on the schedule that were canceled were right in Jessie's wheelhouse. They're her real strengths — freestyle skiing, the 10 km freestyle and sprinting — are all in her wheelhouse. And those were the races that were canceled.

Jessie Diggins competes in the women's 10 km event at the 2021 FIS Cross Country World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany.
Credit Tom Horrocks/ / U.S. Ski & Snowboard
Jessie Diggins competes in the womens 10 km event at the 2021 FIS Cross Country World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany.

What happened earlier in the season though, is that Jessie won the Tour de Ski in January. It’s like the Tour de France. It's a multi-stage race where [racers] accumulate time every day, and the person with lowest time at the end of the eight days is the winner. And by [Diggins] winning that event, it was the first time an American had won the Tour de Ski as well.

Jessie earned 400 World Cup points, which catapulted her into the lead. And then nobody could catch her after that. The Norwegians missed some of the World Cup races because of COVID protocols. They decided to stay home instead. So Jessie is the only skier [out] of the entire World Cup who competed in every single World Cup [event] and scored points in every single World Cup [event] this season.

I want to play some tape that you've provided for us, Peggy, because I really think this speaks to the kind of person that Jessie Diggins is. Because of all those amazing accomplishments that you just mentioned, this is an individual sport. Yes, she's part of Team USA, but this is what Jessie Diggins had to say about winning these individual honors:

“It's really, really cool to be able to be the first to do something, to have that opportunity to say, 'Yes, this is totally possible.' And yeah, I guess I could just keep going back to the team, because I think that we're very proud as a team. I don't feel like it's right to say I am proud as an individual. I feel like it's more [that] we are proud as a team. But it's definitely cool to be able to bring this home for the first time.” — Jessie Diggins

Yes. When you first talk to Jessie after she's had a good race, or in fact any race, she will not take any credit. She immediately credits the team behind her. And the team behind her isn't just her teammates, who she credits with pushing her throughout the season. They all push each other to compete at a higher level.

But she credits her coaches and particularly, the ski techs, the people who have to wax the skis, and pick the skis they'll be competing on. So, she knows that she cannot compete in a vacuum, and she's always more than willing to share the credit.

Even though it's an individual sport [and she may be] the face out there, but there's a huge team behind her.

From left, Jessie Diggins, Alayna Sonnesyn and Sophie Caldwell during summer cross-country training on roller skis on a road in Stratton.
Credit Tom Horrocks / U.S. Ski & Snowboard
From left, Jessie Diggins, Alayna Sonnesyn and Sophie Caldwell during summer cross-country training in Stratton.

Let me ask about Stratton Mountain. How important is a training location to an athlete like Jessie Diggins?

Stratton Mountain School is a ski racing academy that's been there, I think, since the 1970s. They've had a very strong Nordic program. And Sverre Caldwell, who grew up in Putney, Vt. — his dad is John Caldwell, who was an Olympian and an Olympic coach back in the '60s and '70s — Sverre was the longtime director of the Stratton Mountain School program. And in 2012, he started what's called a club system.

A club is basically what it sounds like. It's based on the Scandinavian model, where you have everybody — from the little kids who are competing in the Bill Koch league, all the way up to the elite skiers who were competing in the World Cup — and they all train together in the summer. It's their home base. They push each other. The little kids learn from the older kids. The older kids really feel like they have a purpose, helping the younger kids come along. And this club system, I think, is really one of the keys to what's helped the U.S. compete so well in the last decade.

We’re bringing skiers to one location in the summertime, so they're not packing their bags to fly out to Park City [in Utah] for training camp once a year and then flying home and training by themselves. So Jessie, when she's at Stratton, got to train with Simi Hamilton, who is a Middlebury College graduate who had been winning World Cups and finishing on the podium in World Cups; with Sophie Caldwell Hamilton, who is also a great sprinter; [and] Andy Newell, one of the first Stratton Mountain School graduates and one of the elite skiers. And they pushed each other and there were a lot of other athletes.

In the summertime, they come together. There are great back roads in Vermont and they can run, and they can roller ski. Jessie once ran the equivalent of a marathon on the Appalachian Trail. So there's all these great resources in Vermont. Plus, they've got World Cup athletes that are together in the same place who are really pushing each other. And that's something that the Scandinavian countries have always had, and now the U.S. has that as well.

COVID, obviously, had a lot to do with this strange season, throughout all sports. And it affected Jessie Diggins as well. Here's what she had to say about being at Stratton, but also, having COVID interfere with her regular training schedule: 

“Even though I didn't get a chance to train on snow, my training in Stratton, Vermont, with my club team was really consistent. I had a chance to actually live with my fiancée all summer because he was working from home. So I was really happy. I felt really safe, because it's a really small town, so we have a really small bubble. So from a COVID perspective, we were able to train really well and look out for one another. And then part of it is, honestly, just in terms of the consistency, I think getting a little bit older, getting a little bit tougher, mentally. And physically, the more years you train, you have more hours, more experience, more intervals under your belt, and more races.” — Jessie Diggins

So it really sounds like Stratton Mountain played a big role in keeping her fit, but also kind of sane and mentally in a good space.

Yes, and I think those of us who were in Vermont last summer, we did really feel safe in Vermont. Vermont did a really good job managing the COVID-19 pandemic. So I think that was key. And again, just the great resources that they have for training down in Stratton.

Sophie Caldwell Hamilton competes in the 2019 World Cup FIS Cross Country Finals in Quebec City.
Credit Reese Brown / U.S. Ski & Snowboard
Sophie Caldwell Hamilton competes in the 2019 World Cup FIS Cross Country Finals in Quebec City.

You've made reference to some other skiers … a Vermont skier whose season and career actually came to an end this week was Peru resident Sophie Caldwell Hamilton, retiring alongside her husband, Simi Hamilton. As I understand it, COVID-19 did interfere with her chances at winning one more big race. What can you tell us about that?

Sophie had a false-positive test right before the last World Cup race. I think the final World Cup, the two-day race they competed in last weekend, was supposed to be her final swansong. And I think a few days before that, she had a false positive. So she and Simi both had to quarantine. But I think they're both healthy and safe.

And what about her career in context? I mean, Sophie Caldwell Hamilton is also a very accomplished skier.

Sophie decided to pursue skiing after she graduated from Dartmouth in 2012. She was very accomplished at Dartmouth. She had a couple of NCAA podium finishes, and she just thought she'd see how professional skiing would go. And in her very first World Cup in Quebec City in 2012, she finished in the top 30, which is a big deal. When you finish in the top 30, you collect World Cup points. So by the end of that season, she had made the U.S. Ski Team.

In 2014, Kikkan Randall was the favorite in the sprint to win a medal. And Kikkan just had a bad day and Sophie stepped up, and in her very first Olympics, made the final in the sprint. You know, here was an American, in the final of an Olympic sprint!

She ended up crashing, she got into a tangle with another skier and she finished sixth. But that was the best finish for an American woman at the Olympics to that point. And she's had a great career since then. I can't remember how many podium finishes she's had, but quite a few, and a couple of wins as well.

Given what Jessie Diggins was able to accomplish — you compared it to the Red Sox finally winning that World Series in 2004 — what does this mean moving forward, her accomplishment, and winning this overall World Cup, for U.S. skiing and for U.S. women's skiing?

I think for U.S. women’s skiing and cross-country skiing in general, I think more kids will be excited to try it. I think cross-country skiing has sometimes faced that “not cool” image, like “the cool kids do alpine or snowboarding.”

Kikkan Randall, who retired after the 2018 games — she and Jessie were the ones who won the gold medal in 2018 [Winter Olympics] — Kikkan used to die her hair pink, and I think they've really made cross-country skiing cool. And it's an outdoor sport, and we've learned this year, it's a great socially-distanced sport. You can get outdoors, you could stay away from people. And I think we're going to see a lot more people come into the sport, because it's exciting. And I think Jessie has been a key part in showing that it's exciting, and it's not a solitary thing, that you can be out there with your friends and teammates having a blast.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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