Jeff Hammer: Jessie Diggins

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    Over the past three decades, I’ve watched a lot of female sporting events, starting with my daughters’ participation in various dance classes when they were in elementary school. My wife and I attended and enjoyed the corresponding local dance recitals. I was always impressed by the talent level of our local youth.

    Not satisfied with performing locally, our daughters’ dance teams then competed against other dance squads from neighboring states. We supported our girls in those competitions held in larger cities like Billings and Las Vegas, where we watched girls and young women performing at a level that one really must see to comprehend and then fully appreciate. 


    To say that dancers aren’t athletes would indicate one’s ignorance.

    Fast forward a few years to middle school and high school, and we again put thousands of miles on our vehicles chasing our daughters around the state to swim meets and Nordic ski races. In my eyes, each of those competitions was a celebration of our daughters’ lives and the paths they had chosen at the time. 

    A bonus for us, as parents, was that we became friends with a few of the coaches and parents from the opposing teams who wanted the same experiences for their athletes and children. The atmosphere, for us as parents, was almost carnival-like. Certainly, it was a social event for us. I’m not sure our daughters shared that sensation as competitors. Probably not.

    In late February of 2002, directly after our older daughter, Erin, finished the state Nordic ski races in Casper, our family of four and one of Erin’s friends drove directly to Evanston, where we spent the night. The next morning, we all made our way the short distance to Park City, Utah where we watched the 30 kilometer women’s Classic Nordic ski race during the Winter Olympics, which incidentally was won by a Russian woman who later was stripped of her medal for doping. The competition, however, was very impressive, as one would expect, and the experience gave our daughters an idea of what a world class performance looked like.


    A few years later, when Erin was an undergrad at UW, Gayla and I drove south to Winter Park, Colorado to watch her ski with her University of Wyoming Nordic teammates at the national competition held there. A year or two later, in 2009, Gayla and I drove to Truckee, California where we enjoyed watching our younger daughter, Paige, and many other Wyoming skiers compete in the Junior National competition. The next year, we flew to Maine to again watch Paige ski at Junior Nationals held that year in Presque Isle. At each venue, the skiing was fantastic and the competition fierce. They were the best young skiers in the land.

    Only a few months ago, was I informed that one of the young women competing in Truckee that year was a Minnesotan named Jessie Diggins. 

    A year later, in Presque Isle, a World Cup and Olympic skier offered the competing Nordic athletes some encouraging words as its keynote speaker at the celebratory banquet, an Alaskan named Kikkan Randall. 


    In 2018, those two ladies would combine to win the first ever Olympic gold medal for the United States in any Nordic event, men’s or women’s, when together they won the Women’s Sprint Race in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The last 60 seconds of that race is, in my opinion, the most exciting minute in American Winter Olympic history and can be watched here:

    That race was Kikkan’s last as a competitive skier, but Jessie continues to ski at the highest level in the world. 

    A perk of being an Olympic champion is that you can ask for things and people in high places pay attention. Jessie’s big ask was to have a couple of World Cup ski races in her home state of Minnesota. Considering that the last World Cup races held in the United States happened in 2001, it was a big ask indeed; but the World Cup powers that be listened, and a two day race event was scheduled at the Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis for March of 2020.


    Do you see where I’m headed with this?

    The original dates unfortunately landed right at the beginning of a chaotic worldwide pandemic. The races were stricken from the calendar and were later rescheduled for February of 2024.

    During the past three winters, Erin has volunteered to spend a week in Europe as a team physician for the United States World Cup skiers. As a side benefit, she is allowed to ski on the days the athletes aren’t racing, and in doing so has come to know the racers, not only professionally, but in a personal capacity, as well…while still getting a workout. 

    Her passion for all things World Cup has only deepened with these experiences, so much so that she never misses watching World Cup races wherever she is. Such is the power of the internet. 

    That passion has now spread to my wife, as over the winter, she has also watched all the World Cup races held in various locations around Europe. She knows the names of most of the racers, both men and women from around the world, their strengths and weaknesses. 

    Before this winter, I didn’t know that Australia fields a Nordic ski team.

    One day, I came into the house from putzing in the garage to the sound of my wife’s voice screaming, “GO! GO! GO! SHE’S GOING TO WIN! GO! GO! GO!”

    When things quieted down, she saw me standing there in the kitchen looking at her, where I was hoping an explanation was coming. Still excited, she informed me that Jessie had won a 20 kilometer skate race by coming from behind in the last few meters at a European venue which I cannot remember. Classic Jessie Diggins.

    So when the opportunity to see a World Cup race on American snow presented itself this winter, Gayla made plans for us to be there. There being Minneapolis, Minnesota. Also there would be Erin who rented an Airbnb with enough room to house all three of us.

    Gayla and I flew in late Friday night to Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport, where Erin picked us up after driving from Madison, Wisconsin. 

    Parking at the race venue would be limited and not an option for us, so we knew that walking the three miles to Theodore Wirth Park was the only option, which was fine. Sprint races were scheduled for Saturday, and Erin suggested that we not arrive early, as the preliminaries were happening then, so we scheduled our arrival for late morning before the quarterfinals were set to begin. 

    Saturday morning dawned clear, but chilly, which is great for racing. After winding our way through several residential areas (thank goodness for cell phones with GPS), we entered an open parklike area and saw our first sign pointing in the direction of the races. We were still a half mile from the starting line when we heard the first roar of the crowd as the preliminaries were finishing up.

    Erin smiled as her eyes got big. “This is going to be good,” she said. “You usually don’t hear the crowd in Europe.”

    As planned, we arrived after the prelims had finished and had to wait a while before the quarterfinals, semifinals, and the finals concluded. Race organizers expected 15,000 spectators to show up, but I know there were many more than that. One had to wait 45 minutes just to use a porta-potty.

    Jessie earned a fourth place finish that day, and the next day she placed third in the 12K skate race. Gus Schumacher, from the United States, shocked everyone and finished first in the men’s 12K.

    But aside from the racers, the real story of the weekend was the crowd. The many thousands of folks who showed up demonstrated the epitome of sportsmanship. Collectively, they cheered for every competitor, but of course the Americans enjoyed a home field advantage. Families, college students, retired couples, fans from Canada and many European countries stood side by side along the race course, watching and cheering on world class athletes in a raucous and celebratory manner.

    And what a celebration it turned out to be, not just for the fans, but also for race organizers, who put the United States back on the map for World Cup races by designing a course and planning the details resulting in an unforgettable experience.

    After each race, the racers generally ski a slower, non competitive lap to let their muscles relax a little and cool down. You know it’s a unique and moving experience for the racers when, during this lap, they are the ones filming the crowd with their cell phones as the spectators cheer for them one more time. I felt privileged to be a part of that.

    For Jessie Diggins, the weekend was the culmination of a dream. In a later interview, she had this to say: “This weekend was the coolest, most emotional and most special weekend of my entire ski career — and that includes all three Olympics, all the World Championships, everything, this was so much bigger than all of that because getting to race at home and seeing my whole family out there and all these amazing families and kids out cheering on the side of the trail. I mean, there’s no better feeling out there.”

    I don’t have the same life experiences as her, so I can’t totally agree with her last statement, but I do know that weekend is not one I’ll ever forget.


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