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2014 Winter Games: Afton’s Jessie Diggins begins Olympic journey

Afton’s Jessie Diggins is helping lead Team USA at the 2014 Olympic Games. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Brunson/USST)

In late January, Republican Eagle sports reporter Kyle Stevens caught up with Olympic cross country skier Jessie Diggins when the Afton, Minn., native was travelling through Europe, competing in the World Cup.

Last week Diggins and the rest of her USA team arrived in Sochi, Russia, for the Winter Olympic Games.

In her first Olympic race, Diggins, 22, finished in eighth place in the 15-kilometer skiathlon. Her time of 40 minutes, 5.5 seconds was 1:31.9 behind winner Marit Bjoergen of Norway, who defended her gold medal win in Vancouver. The women’s skiathlon competitors ski 7.5 kilometers in the classic style then switch skis and repeating in the free skate style. The skiathlon is one of four cross country skiing events Diggins will compete in and the event she had the least hopes of medaling in.

KS: Is that the toughest thing for people to understand about the Olympics. You get a hockey player that gets drafted within the last two years, and he proves himself and he gets to go to the Olympics, whereas you guys spend your entire life hoping to get to one.

JD: I don’t know, maybe people understand that. I do know that cross-country skiing in the U.S. is a very little-known sport. People kind of think of us as these forest fairies running around in the woods. But it’s so much more than that. We have sprint heats where people are crashing into each other and going down. It’s a contact sport. You train for hours and hours, we lift weights, we do intervals, we do long distance runs and skis for up to four hours at a time. It’s incredibly hard training, but it’s incredibly rewarding, you get this incredible body that will take you anywhere you want to go.

You get great endorphins after the races and the workouts. But it does take a lot of time and commitment, and it is a full-time job. We get the month of April and part of May off, but starting in mid-May it’s back into training and we train all the way through November, then race the end of November through March. It’s definitely a lot of work. But it’s so rewarding.

KS: What’s the main thing you’re looking forward to outside the actual competition?

JD: The biggest thing is going to be the Opening Ceremonies. I’ve heard so many cool stories, and everyone says it’s the most amazing feeling when you walk into that arena as a nation with all the other sports from your country. For me, it’s going to be really cool because my parents are going to be in the crowd, so to look for them and to wave to them, I think (that will be) the moment where it’s like, “Wow. I made it.”

KS: What are your expectations?

JD: The events that I hope to compete in – they can’t name who’s going to start each event yet because they have to see who’s healthy, who’s sharp – but the events I’m gunning for are the 15K Skiathalon, the skate (freestyle), the 4-by-5K relay and the 30K skate. I think the biggest goal is definitely the relay. I would really like to be the anchor leg of that. I’ve gotten to anchor every relay the USA has fielded on the World Cup since the 2011 World Championships. So I feel like for us to be able to get a medal in this Olympics would be huge for the team, for our country and for our sport. For U.S. cross-country skiing, for women, we’ve never gotten an Olympic medal before. We’ve never got one. To be able to do that in a team event would be incredible.

KS: Is there any other event you hope to catch while you’re there?

JD: I think we’re going to have a bit of a media blackout, and we’re going to be doing a lot of focus on recovery between the races because you have to prep your body as soon as you can to be ready for the next race. But I am hoping that I’ll have enough free time to see my family while I’m there. I know security is going to be tight, and it’s a bit of a deal travelling down from the (Olympic) Village to Sochi where they’ll be staying. But I would love to see them because I haven’t seen them in a couple months.

KS: Do you have any reservations considering the world view of Sochi and the fear of terrorism?

JD: I’m not concerned for myself at all. When we were there for the test event, security was great. It’s the Olympics, I think every precaution will be there.

And I’m pretty sure my family will be completely safe as well. They’re staying in a great area, a safe area, and they’ll be surrounded by tons of other families and media people. I’m feeling very good about that.

KS: What’s in your future? Do you see yourself doing this again in four years?

JD: Absolutely. In this sport, it is such an endurance sport, and it takes so many years to start reaching the top level that once you’re there, you can keep going for a bit. So I’m hoping to go to the next two Olympics after this for sure. I’m want to keep competing into my 30s.

KS: It sounds like you’ll have a good cheering section, both in Sochi and around the area.

JD: Yeah, I just want to add that the local support means so much to me. It’s incredible to know that the people who matter, the people who have your back, the local support, are the ones that matter to me. These are the people that have been cheering for me since day one and who are going to love me just the same whether I come home with a medal or whether someone trips me and I fall and I don’t come home with anything. It’s a good feeling getting all these emails and congratulations and good-luck wishes from everyone back home.

-Kyle Stevens