WHEN JESSIE DIGGINS, 22, aka Diggs, entered the World Cup last season as a member of the cross country A Team (and skied to an historic World Championship with her friend and hero, Kikkan Randall), she was fulfilling the promise her coaches glimpsed when she was still a Minnesota high schooler. In fact, she has stomped down Euro snow since she made her World Cup debut in 2011, and she’s thrown down the most auspicious start of any skier ever fielded by a U.S. cross country team. Her latest win? A silver in the individual skate sprint in January 2014’s U23 Championships. And the Olympic torch still burns in Sochi.
Who is this force of nature, and where did she come from?
Drive east out of St. Paul, and soon enough you enter farm country. Continue towards Wisconsin, and you dive down into the river valley formed by the St. Croix, a major tributary of the Mississippi. Afton, Minnesota, is located at a crook in the river, where Lake St. Croix necks down and swings to the southeast for its eventual meet-up with the Mississippi. Jessie schooled about 20 minutes upstream, in the river town of Stillwater, also on the banks of the St. Croix. She describes her high school years as perpetual motion, and she says her family would have backed any endeavor she would have chosen – athletic or not. Fortunately for the U.S. Ski Team, she chose skiing. After high school, she passed up a full ride to Northern Michigan University to train with CXC and try for the national team…and the rest is history.
In a conversation conducted courtesy of Skype last fall, Jessie and I sat down and talked about, well, nothing in particular. We didn’t dwell on Sochi, although we talked around it. I mainly wanted to gauge how such a young skier makes sense of such immediate success, and how she frames her career in light of it. In short, what makes Diggs tick?
Some of her answers might surprise you.
You’ve experienced success early and frequently in your career. Big time. How does that fact set you up for the long run?
I think that sets me up well, because I’m excited to get that feeling again and again and I think there are still a lot of things that female skiers haven’t experienced. We still haven’t won medals at the Olympics yet and I think one of my biggest goals and I’m sure for the rest of the team as well is to ski a relay, get on that podium. It’s a huge goal, and it’s going to take a lot of things going right in the team, a true effort from everyone on it, but I that’s something that we’re shooting for this year and my goal is to be a part of it every way that I can.
For the future, I definitely have at least ten more years that I want to be racing, but I don’t see it as this long drawn out thing. The time that I’ve been skiing so far has already flown by, and it’s so fun, because I love the lifestyle, training so hard all year and then traveling all over on the World Cup, racing. And getting to challenge yourself every weekend — I think that’s so fun. There’s definitely a little bit of pressure because of the way last season played out, and because maybe in the future people are like, “Well good luck topping that year after year,” but I think that as a 22-year-old, my peak is hopefully far in front of me and I’m just looking to take it one season at a time and one race at a time and one training day at a time, really.
How is it to race against your best friends? I mean, what would be going through your mind if you were coming down to the wire, and one of you is going to take fourth, say, and one of you is going to take third…
I don’t know. (Laughs). I guess that would be clear when I came down to that situation. I’d be thrilled just getting into an Olympic final if that’s what you’re referencing. Honestly I’ve never thought about that because in my mind Kikkan’s going to win any sprint race that she enters, if she’s healthy. So I’ve never thought about that. You know, it’s interesting, because I definitely idolize and respect and admire my older teammates, which is every single one of them, and would be tough to…
I don’t like to compete in life. (Laughs) I don’t know if that makes sense.
You don’t like to compete? Could you say more about that?
When the gun goes off, its time to be competitors, but as soon as you cross the finish line, I love being everybody’s friend. I don’t like competing in any aspect of life besides during the actual race itself. And during a race, well, I’d hope that I’d be able to put my head down and hammer and do my best and not worry about anybody else — and I guess that’s the goal.
How do you train your minds for competition?
We have a sports psychologist that works with our team. Every athlete is able to get hold of them and meet with them and come up with sport psych plans. So personally, I meet with the sports psychologist and I think it’s awesome.
Would you be willing to tell me what you talk about?
I tend to talk with her about life in general, usually. It doesn’t always have to be about visualization in a race. Some of what we talk about is how to deal with pressure and how to deal with nerves and how to deal with expectations that you feel are getting piled upon you.
What about [Jon Kabat-Zinn’s] Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Are you given those to use?
Yes, if I ask for them.
Do you have to go through an interview process to “make” the USST? I mean, there are so many factors that go into succeeding –including your ability and desire to commit to the sport for a very long time. And having the ability to get along with other team members. Things like that…
Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. No one has ever asked that before. It is interesting because there is so much more to being on the team than just having good results. You know we really value team and so everyone is supportive of each other, they’re committed to making a good team environment and you have to be a really good team player. Of course there’s the full commitment that goes with the lifestyle. By getting on the team? There is never an interview, “Can you do this all the time?” We never had that interview but I think that the coaches are very; I mean I can’t speak for them but they seem to be very aware of the other aspects of being a full-time athlete besides just skiing fast.
Cool. Tell me about chipmunks. You say something about chipmunks on your online profile.
So when we do Fast and Female events we always introduce ourselves as ambassadors to the kids, and we usually come up with something funny or something to break the ice to let them know that we’re full-time athletes, but we have fun, too. We’re not always so serious. We have fun with sport and so we say our power animal. The animal [is supposed to be] based on your personality. I came up with [the chipmunk] sort of myself, and with a lot of help from my teammates. Everyone was like, “Yeah, this is totally you.”
But I’m not just a chipmunk…I am a Sparkle Chipmunk because the sparkle comes from the fact that I put glitter on my cheeks before every race and I really like to just have fun and I kind of have a bubbly personality. And the chipmunk part is because I kind of stamp around on the snow and I have a ton of energy and I’m always, “Hey guys what’s up? Let’s do this. Let’s do that”. And so I’m kind of like a little chipmunk scampering around doing everything and that’s kind of where the chipmunk thing came from.
Got it. So that’s your animal totem.
It’s not a very fearsome animal. (Laughs) Some people might think of it as a pet, but I think they’re darn cute and really fun and pretty quick.
Cool. I had no idea that each of you has a power animal. What are some of the other power animals on the team?
Kikkan says her animal is Kikkanimal because there has never been one like that before. Ida has one where she said, “My power animal is a toucan because if you can then I toucan.” Get it? (laughs) Let’s see….Sophie is a baby goat. Liz is sometimes a mountain goat I think, and she’s a humming bird mountain goat. I think she’s a hybrid. I can’t remember everyone’s off the very top of my head but it’s interesting to see what people choose as a power animal because I think it does say a lot about them.
How is it to facilitate a Fast and Female event?
You know it’s so fun because you see these girls having fun and you see them light up. They get so excited. I can only hope that at least one of them takes home the inspiring message that sport is awesome and you’ve got to stick with it your whole life and it doesn’t matter in what capacity. You know you don’t have to go to the Olympics to have sport in your life and that’s why during the inspirational presentations we’ll have ambassadors talk about what it’s like to grow up and then become a coach — or to ski in college and then to ski for fun afterwards or to train for the Birkie every year. It’s really cool to see these girls listening and kind of soaking up this message that it’s good to be active and healthy and to be proud of your body because it can do amazing things.
It’s also really fun because I usually run the “Dancing with Diggins” station, one of these fitness
stations where they get to try out different sports and activities. My station is like continuous movement because we’re endurance athletes but to make it fun we do dancing and I ask each girl to pick a dance move, and then the whole group does it, and then you go to the next girl, and we string it together to make a dance that gets longer and longer and longer and they have to remember it. It’s fun for me, because even the shiest girls who are like, “I don’t know, I don’t have a dance move”. And we’ll ask, “What sport do you like?” And if they say “Soccer,” they’ll make a dance move that’s like kicking a soccer ball. It’s fun for me to see these shy girls get really excited, and you can almost see their confidence meter rising as all the other girls are doing their moves and validating [the fact] that “Yeah, I did something cool, and we’re all going to try it.”
What were you like at that age?
Oh man. My mom called me a very active child because I was involved in so many sports and so many things and I always loved running around doing everything. When I was, let’s see, in 7th Grade, I played soccer. I was swimming. I did track. I did skiing. I danced. Everything I could get into, I did. I think it’s great that now I can help spread that love of sport and just being active with other girls. So…
Why didn’t you drop out of sports? What kept you in the game?
That’s a really good question. It didn’t occur to me to drop out. It never occurred to me that there was any reason I should ever stop doing something that I love to do and you know I ended up picking skiing because I loved it; I love the feeling of going fast. I love the fact that there are so many different true techniques and different techniques within that and it’s such a complex sport and I fell in love with it but I could have totally seen myself choosing any sport really and sticking with it my whole life and I love the feeling of challenging myself and feeling strong and fit and able to do whatever I want to do. It had never occurred to me that girls shouldn’t do sports. That thought never came round.
You grew up in Minnesota, is that right? Not too far from Stillwater?
Yeah, I went to high school at Stillwater and I grew up in Afton, a tiny little town, which I absolutely love. There is great roller skiing there.
Do you have siblings?
I have a younger sister. She’s five years younger so she’s 17.
Is she interested in sports or is she, “That was Jessie’s thing. I’m doing my own thing”.
She used to ski a lot on the high school team but she is so interested in musical theater, and so good at it, and passionate about it, and kind of ended up going into the school in St. Paul for the performing arts, which is so fun because when I’m home I get to see her practicing for plays and musicals. This summer I got to see her in a production of Little Orphan Annie – she did an awesome job — and I think it’s really cool because she still goes out and runs. She’ll go roller-skiing, ski in the winter, do sports whenever she wants but her real passion is theater, and I think it’s actually cool that she’s able to do the thing that she’s really into and I think it’s been really fun for the family to support that because it’s really given us a bigger appreciation for theater. Now we’re always seeing these plays and referencing these musicals that we’ve never seen before. I feel more cultural now.
What about your parents?
Both my parents actually work for Slumberland Furniture. My dad works for the corporation and my Mom owns a franchise store in Redwing, Minnesota. It’s fun because when I was younger, I used to work at my mom’s store loading mattresses into people’s trucks and assembling furniture and getting these power tools and having a lot of fun with that. I feel really lucky that I have such a good relationship with my family and that my parents have supported me and my sister in whatever we wanted to do. If I had said, “I really want to be a painter” they would have been like “Yeah, go for it! We will support you and come to every art show”. They’re really amazing that way supporting everything we want to do and helping us achieve our goals. I feel really lucky that way.
And how has it been to be away from your family for such long intervals?
Yeah, I mean definitely it is really hard to not be home for so long, especially since I have a really good relationship with my family and I love being home. I love being with them and I guess you know, if I’d been in college I wouldn’t be seeing them a whole lot either so part of me is like “Yeah, don’t be such a baby”. If I had gone to college I would have been away for four years as well, but it isn’t hard to not be home and what’s more, even though I’m not at home it’s not like I’m in a second home all the time. I’m on the road so much that I’ve never been in one place for longer than I think, five weeks at a time.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been in one place for two months or more. So I think that’s also the really hard part, not being in the same bed for very long. But this year has been really great because all the training camps have been in places where I’ve already been before, which is nice, because you go to Park City, and I know the coffee shop… this is a really great place to go grocery shopping, and then make a team dinner at the condo where we always stay…and so that’s been easier, but it definitely is still hard not to see my parents and sister very much. But Skype has been incredible. Whoever invented Skype, I’m really happy with them.
Are you in a long-term relationship, and if so, how do you make it work when you’re on the road so much?
I’m not in a relationship right now. I’ve done long distance before and it is tough. It takes a really big commitment. It’s hard to not be able to see the person that you want to be with. I had this realization last year, like Holy Crap, if I’m skiing until I’m 35, I’m not going to be able to see people like boyfriends or friends, or just friends, period. I’m not going to be able to see them for very much time in the year – which is hard! But it’s cool, because on the team we see Kikkan and Holly are both married, and they have great relationships, and they’re able to do the long distance thing and that’s really inspiring.
Do athletes from other countries on the World Cup circuit date?
You know, I’m just going to have to let the audience wonder about that one. Sorry.
Well done. Do you receive media coaching for calls like this one?
Ah yes, actually.
So what do they tell you?
We did this ambassador training and it’s actually astonishing the amount of things to learn that I’d never really thought about before.
Oh, for example, flag etiquette. You’re not supposed to wrap the flag around yourself. Everyone kind of holds the flag up at the Olympics, but I didn’t know that you shouldn’t let it touch you. [You’re supposed to], like, hold it out. Stars are on the right hand but it’s hard when it’s behind your back, so you have to always remember that. And then there are things like, you know, if someone asks you a question that you don’t feel comfortable with or someone says “Wow you really had a terrible race today. Thoughts?” They tell you how to field that question. How to direct it to what you want to talk about so that you don’t have to feel like trapped by questions that might be going in a different direction than you maybe wanted to go.
You’ve got to be careful… It would be too easy to come back with a snappy retort, right? And I guess you’ve got to keep your game face on when you’re asked kind of silly questions.
Yeah. I guess the hardest time to keep a game face is when you have a bad race or even when you don’t have a bad race, but it’s not an astoundingly stellar race, and someone will say something like, “That didn’t go the way you wanted it to” and you’re kind of like, you know it really sucks that in this line of work anonymous people that you don’t know, that don’t know you, get to judge you, and comment on how you do your job.
I was watching an interview of you after last year’s gold at the World Championships. I think you were asked a question about breaking your pole – the interviewer wanted to know whether that had been a tactic of yours. I saw your eyes roll for just a second…
Yeah, sometimes you get funny questions where somebody would be like “Did you fall down on purpose?” and you’d be like “Yeah….Uh, No”.
And basically it’s commenting on how fast you can or can’t move your body. So it is very easy for that to get very personal because it’s kind of like [them saying] “Well you aren’t very fast!”
So it’s good to go through media training and learn how to not take that personally because there are going to be times when you’ve had a bad race and there are going to be times when after that bad race when someone says something that you know, is really pretty mean but you have to be able to deal with it. Ultimately you are in control of an interview and someone can ask you a question about how the race went and you can come back with, “Well I love chocolate ice cream best of all”.
You really do get to say whatever you want.
Given that, how are you feeling about being in the Olympic spotlight as a representative of the U.S.A.?
It’s a little daunting, because we’re only human, you know. You can say something with the best of intentions and it could get misinterpreted because in a printed article you can’t read tone very well sometimes. So it’s interesting, it definitely can be a little scary. I sometimes think like oh wow, no matter what you’re not going to please everyone. Somebody’s going to be mad at you for something. You know you’re never going to make everybody happy but it’s also kind of exciting to go to the Olympics and you know, I do want to represent my country and I’m excited and I’ll put my best foot forward and hopefully when our team leaves, people will say, “Wow the Americans were great competitors, great team spirit,” just really good losers and good winners, however it pans out. Good sports, I guess you’d say.
Here’s the last round. James Lipton uses these questions, invented by French television journalist Bernard Pivot, on his show, Inside the Actors Studio.
What’s your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
A really good night of laughing with my teammates.
What turns you off?
Feeling really lonely.
What is your favorite curse word?
What sound or noise do you love?
The coffee grinder in the morning.
What sound or noise do you hate?
When the announcer says, “One minute to race starts.”
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
What profession would you not like to do?
Anything where I’m stuck in a cubicle.
If Heaven exists what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
“Glad you made it”.
Thank you so much for your time, Jessie. I really appreciate it… and best of luck.
Thank you so much.