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Afton's Diggins looks ahead to the Olympics after standout season

Afton native Jessie Diggins powers up a hill during the 2017 FIS Cross Country World Cup Finals on March 17 in Quebec City, Canada. Photo courtesy The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association1 / 2
Jessie Diggins (center) poses for a photo with Stillwater residents Elsa Olson and Emma Olson. Blaze Fugina / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

Even the best skiers in the world need a break sometimes.

A break is exactly what World Cup cross-country skier and Afton native Jessie Diggins was looking forward to when she was hosting her annual welcome home gathering Wednesday, April 12, at the Slumberland headquarters in Oakdale. Her boyfriend, Wade Poplawski, lives in Boston, and she was looking forward to making the trip to continue the resting phase of her year.

“I’m going to take a week of doing nothing,” Diggins said. “And I mean, nothing except walking to the grocery store. That’s really hard for me, but for my body to completely reset, it needs a total break.”

Diggins wrapped up her race season in Fairbanks, Alaska for the United States Ski Association’s Distance National Championships in late March and early April. It was an end to a year where she recorded her career best World Cup racing season as she finished sixth in the world, right behind Norway’s Marit Bjoergen. In fact, Diggins was the only North American woman to finish in the top-10 of the 2017 final World Cup standings.

Diggins added to her career medal count during the 2017 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Lahti, Finland, when she finished second in the sprint freestyle and third in the team sprint along with U.S. teammate Sadie Bjornsen.

Diggins credited her personal coach Jason Cork for helping set up a training plan that allowed her to be at her best for the most important races of the season.

“To work together and to be able to execute that plan and have the peak come at the right time was really crucial to the success at Lahti,” Diggins said. “Because everyone is trying to have their peak come at the right time.”

As an Afton native, Diggins graduated from Stillwater High School in 2010 after winning three Minnesota State High School League pursuit championships. She still maintains her relationship with members of the cross-country ski team and Stillwater coach Kris Hansen.

In fact, Diggins grew up not far from the Stillwater coach's home in Afton. Ever since Hansen first got to know Diggins as a seventh-grader in the Stillwater program, she has continued to be impressed with her mental toughness.

“I think it’s phenomenal. Every single year she raises the bar higher,” Hansen said. “I keep waiting for her to have a year where I kind of go, ‘Yeah, that’s OK. It’s alright that you didn’t do something miraculous.’ But every year she just astounds us with what she accomplishes.”

Diggins has attributed her continued growth on the world stage partially to her age and experience. As a 25-year-old, she is getting closer to her prime as a skier, which generally comes in the late 20s and early 30s.

But she also has credited an effort to become a stronger skier both technically and mentally.

“I’ve been working really hard on all these technique things, with my classic skiing and my skate skiing,” Diggins said. “And the mental aspect of racing, I work with a sports psychologist. All those tiny little details add up to me training so much more effective, and make you absorb the hours that you are putting in on the road, on the trail, in the gym.”

Every season is important on the World Cup. But this winter's race schedule will include the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, an even larger stage for cross-country skiers to compete in front of a broad audience.

A women’s cross-country skier from the United States has never finished with an Olympic medal. Bill Koch is the only American to medal in cross-country skiing after winning a silver medal in the 30-kilometer race during the 1976 Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria.

But with the growth of Diggins and the rest of the U.S. cross-country program, they hope to end the long medal drought this winter in South Korea.

“A lot of things need to line up, but if they do, it is technically possible,” she said. “I mean, coming out of the last world championships, we tied alpine for the number of medals. So I think it’s not ridiculous to set our goals that high.”

Blaze Fugina

Blaze Fugina is the sports editor of the Woodbury and South Washington County Bulletin newspapers. Previously, Blaze worked as a sports editor for the Pierce County Herald and a sports reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in May of 2011. You can follow Blaze on Twitter at @BlazeFugina.

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