Jessie Diggins' Path to Cross-Country Sking Triumph: The Most Successful Non-European

No woman from outside Europe had ever won the overall Crystal Globe, cross-country skiing's most coveted award, until Diggins broke that barrier three years ago

by Sededin Dedovic
Jessie Diggins' Path to Cross-Country Sking Triumph: The Most Successful Non-European
© Maja Hitij / Getty Images

Cross-country skiing at the elite level is more like a battle for survival than a simple sport. It is a confrontation with existential resistance, which requires a tolerance of suffering that borders on the inhuman. Jessie Diggins calls it the "pain cave"—that agonizing abyss that endurance athletes step into when they're over the edge of exhaustion.

Diggins' hard-won mastery of the discipline took her from the humble confines of a small town in Minnesota to the pinnacle of a sport long dominated by Europeans. And yet she triumphs. It's been four days since Diggins secured her second overall World Cup title, putting the finishing touches on what can only be described as the most triumphant season ever for an American skier.

A 32-year-old woman from a small suburb of St. Paul, Afton, population 2,951, needed no less than 20th place in last week's women's 20km mass start freestyle race that ended last Sunday in Falun, Sweden, to take the crown. But instead of settling for safety, Diggins pulled off a spectacular coup de grace on a track that perfectly suited her strengths.

Diggins produced a lung-busting final sprint, crossing the finish line just nine-tenths of a second ahead of Norway's Heidi Weng, taking her sixth individual win of the season. "Despite the cacophony of noise, pressure and countless distractions, I raced with an abundance of joy, truly enjoying every moment," says Diggins, her screen awash in her trademark glow and warmth as she reflects on her latest conquest.

"It felt like crossing the finish line of a four-month odyssey, not just the end of a 20km race." Few athletes can match Diggins' level of fitness. After more than a decade in the upper echelons of cross-country skiing, she is at the zenith of her abilities.

Speaking via Zoom from her residence in Massachusetts, Diggins confirms that her strength, endurance and technique have never been sharper, the culmination of countless hours of training. Her tactical acumen is equally honed; in mass start races, where competitors start at the same time and the first to cross the finish line emerges as the winner, she has an intuitive sense of when to jump ahead.

No woman from outside Europe had ever won the overall Crystal Globe, cross-country skiing's most coveted award, until Diggins broke that barrier three years ago. She has now achieved that feat twice. However, her stellar season almost disappeared before it even began last summer, when she faced the return of her eating disorder after more than a decade in recovery.

"There is so much stigma and misinformation around eating disorders," Diggins asserts. "These are mental illnesses, not behavioral choices. They can affect anyone, regardless of age, race or background. It's not limited to a certain demographic.

Furthermore, it's often not just about food or body image; it's a search for control in the face of overwhelming chaos, searching for some semblance of safety when everything is tumultuous. In my case, I overdid myself for a long time, felt completely overwhelmed, and my eating disorder served as a crutch, numbing the overwhelming feelings I couldn't deal with.

face." Diggins was just 18 when her escalating struggle with bulimia nervosa led her to seek refuge at the Emily Program, a recovery center based in Minnesota. There she gathered a support network consisting of therapists, dieticians, doctors and a sports psychologist, individuals who have remained an integral part of her journey to this day.

"I've been fortunate to have consistent support from someone who is intimately familiar with my history, my struggles," says Diggins. "We talk almost every week, cultivating a robust safety net even during times of peace. Even when everything seems to be going well, we dissect every aspect of my life, strengthening our defenses when adversity strikes.

And when that happened this year, the We have the expertise of an eating disorder specialist and sports dietitian, enhancing my team of support professionals well versed in the nuances of eating disorder recovery."

Jessie Diggins© Giovanni Auletta/Agence Zoom / Getty Images

This mutual support proved necessary to propel Diggins to the starting lineup when the season began in November.

"The journey of mental health is significantly different from physical injury," explains Diggins. "With a broken arm, there's a predictable timeline for recovery, a semblance of certainty. Mental health, however, offers no such guarantees; progress isn't always linear.

You can take three steps forward, only to take one back. Going into this season, I was unsure of what was in store for me. I was adamant about not committing to a full season." Diggins' resilience was on full display earlier in the season during the 20km freestyle race in Ruka, Finland.

Despite losing her right ski pole and glove with about a mile to go, and enduring profuse bleeding, she persevered and eventually finished second. Her first triumph of the season soon followed, a commanding 10k skating performance in Gällivare, Sweden.

After that, she won the prestigious Tour de Ski, a grueling nine-day series of races similar to the Tour de France, for the second time. By mid-February, she had amassed an impressive 340-point lead at the top of the overall rankings, wearing the coveted yellow jersey for more than 100 days.

Although Sweden's Linn Svahn was able to close the gap to just 75 points before the season finale, Diggins produced a masterful performance, earning her sixth individual victory of the year and surpassing Kikkan Randall's record for most solo wins in a single season by an American. Moreover, she secured her second crown over the distance, with 224 points ahead of Germany's Victoria Karl.