Jessica Diggins has gone from strength to strength as an athlete since winning, in tandem with Kikkan Randall, the USA’s first-ever cross-country skiing Olympic gold medal in the team sprint at PyeongChang 2018. But she takes greatest pride in her development as a person…
In the two years since shocking the European cross-country skiing powerhouses by snatching Olympic gold in the women’s team sprint, the USA’s Jessica Diggins has won a World Cup, finished on the podium more than a dozen times and been an almost permanent fixture in the top five of the season-long rankings. In short, she has cemented her position at the very top of her sport.
Yet above and beyond all this, she believes she has achieved something far more important.
“After the Olympics, I decided I had a chance to make a difference and that I was not OK with not sharing my story if I felt like I could help even one person,” Diggins said, referring to her decision to reveal to the world that she had suffered from a devastating eating disorder in her late teens.
“Ironically, it was sparked by the ESPN [magazine] Body Issue. They asked if I would be part of it. I really thought about it, I talked about it with my boyfriend, my parents. They said, ‘Go for it if you want, but will this bring up any issues for you?’ But thinking about it, I realised I really was OK with my body and my body image. I actually felt OK with people seeing my body exactly the way it was. I realised no one’s opinion but my own really mattered and my opinion was kind towards myself.
“So I decided to do it as a celebration of that, how far I had come since my eating disorder. And then I realised, ‘What better way to tell my story?’”
Diggins wrote a long, heartfelt blog post to coincide with the publication of the magazine and, contrary to her deepest fears, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“Within 30 hours of sharing my story I had hundreds of people writing to say, ‘Wow, me too’,” an emotional Diggins recounted. “I had coaches saying, ‘I am so glad you helped me realise how much of an issue this can be’, parents saying, ‘I read your blog post with my two teenage daughters and we had a really open conversation about it’.
“I remember just sitting in my room with tears, happy tears, rolling down my face [and] realising, ‘I might have actually found a way to help people through sport and through the hardest time in my life’.”
Once the dust settled on the public’s reaction, Diggins realised she would have to deal with the reaction of her peers on the World Cup circuit. A thought which in some ways terrified her just as much.
“I was like, ‘Will people judge me? Will they be whispering about me behind my back?’ I shouldn’t say I was surprised, but it was so incredible to see the amazing, positive response. Not one person on social media or in person has ever said anything negative to me about it.
“It’s been so cool to see athletes from all over the world saying, ‘This is something that everyone struggles with to a degree, and for some people to a life-threatening degree’.”
Since the beginning of last season, the Olympic champion has worn a headband branded with “The Emily Programme”, a charitable organisation which she credits with helping her save her own life. It is a key part of her ongoing commitment to keeping the issue front and centre.
“I am really passionate about education and opening up the conversation,” she said. “Coaches are often afraid to tackle the subject at all, and we need to make sure athletes are happy talking about potential issues with the person they are closest to.
“A coach or a teacher or a parent has an incredible opportunity to instil positive body confidence by saying things like, ‘Food is fuel’ and ‘Strong bodies are healthy bodies are beautiful bodies’.”
These are mantras that go straight to the heart of a sport which Diggins says promotes all different body types, with competitors coming in a variety of shapes and sizes. The 28-year-old from Minnesota is also delighted that there is no major age barrier in cross-country skiing, with athletes widely expected not to reach their peak until their 30s.
All of which ties neatly into the racer’s ambition to go on and become a true all-round athlete.
“One of my big goals for my career is to be able to step up to the start line of any race and think, ‘I have a shot at winning this’ and to really truly believe that and to be able to back it up,” she said.
She is certainly making progress towards this. There is just one World Cup race format in which she is yet to finish on the podium: the 30km classic. It is cross-country’s blue riband Olympic event, and Diggins intends to be a genuine medal contender in it by the time of the Beijing 2022 Winter Games.
Given her form since she and team-mate Kikkan Randall won the USA’s first-ever Olympic cross-country skiing gold in PyeongChang, it would seem unwise to bet against Diggins creating history once again.
It has not all been smooth progress on the snow for the skier since that golden day in the Republic of Korea, however.
“For me it was almost harder after the gold medal [than before]. I felt everyone was looking at me to keep doing it, flawlessly, for ever,” Diggins said. “I definitely had an adjustment period of about a year where I had to learn, ‘OK, keep being you, that’s good enough, that’s all you have to do’.
“I had to find different ways to keep a little more balance in my life. I got help from my sports psychologist, my family, my coaches saying, ‘We want to make sure Jessie the person is in a good place; we are first and foremost worried about Jessie the person’.
“I feel really fortunate to have had an awesome support team around me, looking out for me as a human, before me as a race result.”
And now she is doing the same for a whole generation of young women.