Q&A with Jessica Diggins

Q&A with Jessica Diggins

Team USA's Jessie Diggins poses with cross-country skis

Where did you grow up?
St. Paul, Minnesota

What is your earliest memory of cross-country skiing?
My earliest memory is of singing songs in my parents’ ear as we went for a family ski with me in my Dad’s backpack! So my perception of skiing was that it was incredibly fun, beautiful and a good way to spend time with people you love.

Later on what really drew me to the sport was that it’s so tough yet so beautiful and graceful. It’s a sport that demands so much of you, and challenges you to dig deep down inside yourself to see what you’re really made of when you’re coming to the sprint out at the end of a 30 kilometer race.

What is your first memory of watching the Olympics?
We didn’t have a great TV growing up, but I remember hearing that Beckie Scott, a Canadian, won a gold medal and I remember thinking that it was possible, and that I wanted to go do that too, someday!

Do you remember a “breakthrough” moment in your cross-country career when you realized you could make it to the Olympic Games?
In 7th grade I was asked at the last minute to fill in for a varsity skier at a pre-state conference ski meet when she got sick. I pulled on my suit and ran over in time for a short warmup before I was racing, and I ended up winning the race and making the team to go to state! I remember thinking that racing could be super fun and that I wanted to start training seriously so I could see how far I could take the sport.

Then when I was 19 years old and won a national title, I qualified for my first World Championships team in Oslo 2011. I got to race my first ever World Cup the weekend before it! I totally got my ass kicked, but I was so excited to be racing in Norway, the birthplace of cross country skiing.

When I got to race at World Championships, I qualified for the sprint (meaning you have to finish top-30 in the world in the qualifier race) and it was a huge moment for me. I realized how much I loved racing at the highest level and how hard I was willing to train in order to keep coming back to these competitions and see how far up I could place for our team.

The next time I raced at World Championships I won the team sprint with Kikkan Randall and we became the first-ever World Champions for the USA in our sport, so I think that first World Cup had a pretty big effect on me!

Who has had the biggest influence on your life and athletic career?
Mom and Dad, and my coach Jason Cork! My Mom and Dad introduced me to the sport and taught me to ski and most importantly, they taught me to love skiing for life, not just for racing! My parents drove me to countless practice sessions, washed all my smelly workout clothes, bandaged me up when I fell on my roller skis, took me to races and gave me all the hugs I could want after I finished. They never stopped believing in me and even if I doubt myself I know they always have my back!

Coach Cork is such a caring and hardworking person and aside from being the one to wax my skis, he’s always there for me before and after each race, and he helps me through every tough training session. When I’m trying not to puke on the side of the trail after pushing as hard as I could, he always knows the right thing to say and helps me find how to dig deeper for that extra 1% of effort.

Did anyone ever try to dissuade you from pursuing your goals in cross-country?
I had a former teammate when I was just out of high school tell me that I wasn’t good enough, that the national team didn’t want me and that I was a “fake” person for being happy all the time. But I’m just a naturally bubbly and optimistic person. It really rattled me to have someone that I had previously looked up to trying to intimidate me, but luckily I had many other great people in my life and good role models to look up to!

I was able to focus on the good things and realize that what someone says in a bad moment doesn’t define me, and I don’t have to worry about what they think if the most important people in my life have got my back.

How much time do you spend training each day?
It depends on the training cycle we’re in, but between 3-5 hours a day. And we only count time that we’re in constant motion, so stretching, body care and technique analyzation aren’t counted into that.

How much sleep do you need to feel your best?
I sleep around 9-10 hours every night, and I try to nap for 30 minutes during the day. I am really high energy during the day so it’s hard for me to slow down, but I make myself have “resting time” even if I don’t sleep!

What’s the most grueling workout you’ve ever done?
I did this one workout last summer that was designed to let me find that pushing-beyond-pain-feeling, really dig deep into my own mind and see what I found there.

It was a simple setup: 4 minute L4 intervals (so hard race pace) where I started from the same spot every time and marked the finish spot on my first interval. I then proceeded to keep doing intervals until I couldn’t make it to that same finishing point anymore.

That was a brutal workout, and here’s why: I could stop any time I wanted to. I could dog it and pretend to get tired when the pain became too much, when it got hard to breath and haul myself up the hill one more time. Nobody would know but me. But I wanted to know that I truly gave it everything, so even when I was on my hands and knees dry heaving after 4 minutes, I’d get up and keep going, pushing harder. My coach would look at me and say “you done?” and I’d say “just one more”. I can’t remember how many I ended up doing, but it was more than I thought I ever could – and it taught me a lot about what it means to be tough.

What are some of your favorite workout songs?
I like upbeat, happy music that I can dance and jump around to!
“Bluebirds” by Life of Dillon, “Vibe” by JoJo, “Sorry” by Justin Bieber, “HandClap” by Fitz & The Tantrums, “All Time Low” by Jon Bellion.

Are there any misconceptions about cross-country skiing you would like to clear up?
Yes! We are not just spandex-wearing fairies gliding through the woods! Our sport can have some brutal crashes in the head-to-head sprint races or mass starts, and it’s aerobically the hardest sport there is.

What’s the coolest, weirdest or most intense thing about cross-country skiing that people typically miss?
People don’t always see how hard we’re working since it might look graceful on the outside when you’re striding up a hill, but you’re burning the equivalent of a Chipotle burrito every hour and our races are so different: from a 1.2km sprint, to a 10km to a 30km race.

I think the hardest part of our sport is that we never get to clock out or punch in a time card. Everything we do affects how we train and race. We can’t stay up late or fuel our bodies with low-quality food or drink a lot and we can’t go on vacations except for the month of April because although we get one day off a week to rest, we’re training all the time!

What is your biggest fear when competing?
That I will somehow stop short of giving everything I have and cross the finish line with energy to spare.

What’s something people would be surprised to learn about being an elite cross-country skier?
We peak later than some other [athletes] because of how long it takes to build fitness, so most [cross-country] athletes reach the peak of their career between the ages of 27-33!

Who is your most interesting teammate and why?
That’s a really hard question because I hate to pick favorites and I really love all my teammates! But probably Kikkan Randall because she has been competing in the Olympics since 2002 and she’s an extremely accomplished veteran in the sport!

Do you have any nicknames?
Diggs, and my teammates call me that because I can dig deep into the “pain cave” during a race, and also because I used to fall down a lot!

Who are your biggest rivals? Is it friendly or contentious?
The Norwegian team girls are currently leading the World Cup and it’s a friendly competition that we have. I’ve trained at their team camp and we are all friends, and after each race we hug and congratulate each other and are really happy to see a friend get a personal best or have a breakthrough.

After I got my first sprint podium Heidi Weng, a Norwegian girl my age who is leading the World Cup, grabbed my hand and held it up as we skied in front of the crowd, she was so happy for me!

What is your favorite perk of being an Olympic athlete?
Seeing the inspiration and excitement in the faces of the kids I help coach in the summer. It’s so cool to know that my hard work can help inspire other people to set their goals high and go after them!

Do you like all the travel that comes with being an international athlete?
I love getting to see the world through sport and one of my favorite training camps ever was in New Zealand. It was an awe-inspiring kind of natural beauty.

Have you been to South Korea? What are you excited to experience in PyeongChang?
I haven’t been before, and I’m really excited to learn more about the area and if we get a break in between races, see more of what South Korea looks like outside the Olympic Village.

Karaoke is popular in South Korea. What would you sing if asked to get on stage?
Haha, I haven’t done karaoke in a long time but probably something ridiculous like an Eminem rap song.

Are you a fan of any professional sport teams or players? 
I don’t watch a lot of sports although my boyfriend used to be a hockey player so I love watching hockey games and cheering for the Minnesota Wild!

If you are to indulge, what’s your favorite food, snack and dessert?
I love to make banana bread because I always bake that at home with my Dad and it reminds me of home! I am a huge fan of dark chocolate, and my two favorite desserts are fruit crisps and flourless chocolate cake.

What do you like to do when you’re not cross-country skiing?
I love to read every night before bed, garden in the spring in Minnesota with my Mom and also grow tomatoes and basil on the deck of our house in Vermont. I like going camping with my family as often as I can. I dance (alone!) on my days off or at training camps to warm up for strength, I like to do yoga alone on a sunny deck in the summer, I like to play my guitar alone or with teammates while on the road, and I like to go swimming or cliff jumping with friends in the summer after workouts.

Do you have any fears? 
I really don’t like insects or snakes.

Do you have any hidden talents?
I’m not an amazing dancer but I love to move!

What’s something quirky about yourself that people would be amused to learn?
Although I’m an energizer bunny and super bouncy during the day, I’m really sleepy in the mornings and my voice is always super husky. I’m also a dork and can quote movie lines exceptionally well, and I pretty much memorized the “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars.”