Now Diggins has made a mark in one of the toughest races in the sport.
The Tour de Ski included a variety of sprint and 10-kilometer races, characterized by individual surges and (literal) plummets. The event culminated with Sunday’s 10K hill climb, which took racers directly up the downhill ski area on a course with an average slope angle of 12 percent and with sections reaching a gradient of 44 percent — better suited for climbing with crampons than scaling with the lightweight skinny skis used in the sport.
It’s no wonder Diggins — and everyone else — appeared to be hyperventilating at the finish line.
“It’s almost comical, how brutally hard it is,” Diggins said. But brutally hard is par for the sport. As Matt Whitcomb, the U.S. cross-country ski team coach, said, “At the end of the day, if you can’t make your body sustain pain, you’re not going to be successful.”
Diggins, a Minnesota native, is on the fast track to becoming the country’s most decorated Nordic skier of all time, surpassing Randall.
“There’s a lot of athletes in a lot of sports who don’t know the meaning of ‘give up,’ who say, ‘I’ll run through a brick wall.’ I don’t think many athletes can actually do that. Jessie can,” said Jason Cork, the coach of the American team at the World Cup and Diggins’s coach since 2010. “There’s a lot of workouts I’ve seen her do where I’m like, ‘That’s probably enough. Let’s pull the plug.’ She’s like, ‘I can do a couple more.’”
Competing at the sport’s top echelon requires a level of fitness that takes years to achieve, and every competition involves the most full-fledged cardiovascular output imaginable. Cross-country ski racing includes several types of races over various distances on two styles of skis — skate and classic — both of which are narrow and lightweight, have no metal edges and are designed for fast gliding. Other than the use of skis, the sport is similar to running, and races are sprints, distance and team events.
“It’s like finding the biggest hill in your neighborhood and running up and down it as fast as you can over and over again,” Diggins said. “It’s one of the cool things about this sport; you have to push your body as hard as you can.”
Randall was the first American skier to gain international notice in the sport since Bill Koch, who won a silver medal at the Winter Olympics in 1976 and the World Cup overall title in 1982.