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Jessie Diggins skis into world championships on historic roll, wearing powerful message

Jessie Diggins

TOBLACH HOCHPUSTERTAL, ITALY - JANUARY 05: Jessie Diggins of USA celebrates after winning the Women’s 10km F at the FIS Tour De Ski Toblach at on January 5, 2021 in Toblach Hochpustertal, Italy. (Photo by Federico Modica/NordicFocus/Getty Images)

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Jessie Diggins calls it the cross-country skiing season of her wildest dreams. It’s not over yet.

Diggins, who in 2018 teamed with the since-retired Kikkan Randall to win the U.S.’ first Olympic cross-country skiing title, is likely to make more history over the next month.

It could come at the world championships -- which start Thursday (TV schedule here) -- where she has a chance to become the first American to win an individual gold medal. It will probably happen by the end of the World Cup season later in March.

Diggins holds a 342-point lead in the standings for the World Cup overall title, awarded based on results across all events for the entire season. World championships results don’t count toward the World Cup overall.

There are a handful of World Cup races left after the world championships. The scale is 100 points for a victory, and descending from there. Do the math with Diggins’ lead, and you get an idea of her chances to become the second American ever to take that crown after Bill Koch in 1982.

“It’s always been a big dream of mine to be able to show up ready to play, no matter what it is: distance, sprint, classic [style], skate [style], skiathlon,” Diggins, 29, said last week. “Whatever it is, I want to show up and be ready to give it my best fight. I’m finally getting to that place in my career.”

Rewind to PyeongChang. Diggins, though she won the last World Cup before the Winter Games and ultimately finished second in the overall that season, said recently that she went into her individual events at her second Olympics as a “long-shot hope.” Koch is the only U.S. cross-country skier to earn an individual Olympic medal, back in 1976.

Before that golden team sprint, Diggins finished fifth, fifth and sixth individually in PyeongChang. She missed a medal by 3.3 seconds in her best individual event, the 10km freestyle (which is on the world championships and Olympic program every other edition, including next week but not in 2022).

“Coming so close individually so many times was eye-opening,” she said. “When you’re right there, you know you can make it happen. You know it’s possible. You’ve seen it. It’s five seconds ahead of you.”

ON HER TURF: Diggins on body image education, why sports journalism needs more women

Exactly four months after her last Olympic race, Diggins published what she called “the most important blog I’ll ever write” on her website, titled “Body Issue(s).”

Diggins, after appearing in ESPN the Magazine‘s “Body Issue,” decided to publicly share her experience with disordered eating as a teenager. She hoped to open a conversation about body image.

Ever since, Diggins has raced with a badge across her headband reading “The Emily Program,” a national leader in eating disorder treatment. Diggins, in her high school graduation year of 2010, did what she called the scariest thing in the world, calling the program to get treatment that saved her life.

She wears the headband to remind viewers that it’s OK to have a vulnerable side. It’s OK to ask for help. Her fear is that a young athlete might misattribute her success in the sport to the eating disorder. In reality, she was still in recovery at the time of the PyeongChang Games.

“The only reason I even made it to that Olympics at all was because of The Emily Program and because of my recovery, and because of my support team, and my family, and the amazing teammates around me, and coaches who said we accept you for who you are,” she told NBC Sports before this season.

The Emily Program patch was there when Diggins won three World Cup races, among eight podiums, so far this winter. And most memorably, when she collapsed in exhaustion after the final climb up Alpe Cermis to become the first American to win the Tour de Ski, a Tour de France-like stage race.

“It gave me a lot of confidence in that I felt like I could perform under pressure,” she said of winning the Tour.

The patch was there when, three weeks later in Falun, Sweden, Diggins did something arguably more impressive: hand Norwegian queen Therese Johaug her first straight up defeat in an international distance freestyle race in nearly five years. (Johaug, and the rest of the dominant Norwegians, skipped early season World Cups and the Tour de Ski for coronavirus safety reasons.)

“In the world of skiing, the win at the Tour de Ski followed up very quickly by that win in Falun, it changed the profile of her season for sure, from it being an asterisk season,” said NBC Sports analyst Chad Salmela, who voiced the famous “Here comes Diggins!” call in PyeongChang. “There’s no real asterisk there because she beat Johaug in what Johaug can win at or should win at.”

Johaug is at worlds in Oberstdorf, Germany, where the course suits her better than in Falun. Competition starts with sprints on Thursday.

For Diggins, the team sprint on Sunday and relay on March 4 are special. “If you put my teammates’ goals and hopes and dreams on the line, suddenly I have so much confidence,” she said.

Individually, the key is the 10km freestyle next Tuesday.

Diggins took silver in the event the last time it was contested at worlds in 2015. Johaug missed the next major 10km free at the 2018 Olympics due to a doping ban over lip cream.

“I won’t be surprised if Jessie beats [Johaug], but it will be an upset for sure,” Salmela said.

Diggins’ first skiing experiences came while tucked into her father’s backpack on longer treks in their native Minnesota. She would pull on his hair and yell, “Mush!” because she loved to glide fast. Early on her own skis, Diggins staggered around the Afton Alps and recalled crashing nearly every race in one season.

So team-oriented, she once left an international junior competition before the closing ceremony to make it back to Minnesota for a regional event for her high school. So outgoing, her longtime coach said she took an extrovert test and recorded the maximum score of 25.

“I wouldn’t have been surprised if she actually had 26,” said Jason Cork, who has worked with Diggins since 2010.

This season, she has achieved individual success like never before -- in sprints and distance races and in both types of skiing -- classic and freestyle (or skate).

“I know that when I cross the finish line, there’s going to be nothing left,” she said. “I feel good about that.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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