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Jessie Diggins is first U.S. cross-country skier to win individual world title

As Jessie Diggins skied to the first individual world title in U.S. cross-country skiing history on Tuesday, she noticed all of the American wax technicians dart out to the course to cheer for her. There were so many that she didn’t recognize at least one of the voices.

“I remember at one point thinking, I don’t even know who that was,” Diggins, who did interview after interview in tears of joy afterward, told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “They were just going crazy, and it was just such a good feeling. When you’re in really good shape, it still hurts, but you feel like you can just push so hard.”

In her trademark style, Diggins skied an all-guts race for 23 minutes, 40 seconds to win the world championships 10km freestyle in Planica, Slovenia. She prevailed by 14 seconds over Swede Frida Karlsson. Another Swede, Ebba Andersson, took bronze in an event where skiers went out at 30-second intervals, making it an individual test against the clock.

Diggins, two days after dragging Norwegian and Sweden skiers behind her in the team sprint, where she earned bronze with Julia Kern, began her 10km one minute after Karlsson, who took silver at the last worlds in 2021.

Within the first four minutes, Diggins had opened up a three-second lead on Karlsson. Diggins held a similar lead at each split through 7.7 kilometers, keeping it suspenseful. But in the final six minutes, she put the hammer down, leaving no doubt as she skied to the finish and collapsed onto the snow, gasping for breath right next to Karlsson.

“I couldn’t stop crying after the race,” said Diggins, who over 6.25 miles climbed 1,263 feet, roughly the height of the Empire State Building. “I was like, ‘I can’t even enjoy this because I can’t even see. I’m crying the whole time.’ But it was so special.”

U.S. cross-country skiers previously won 13 Olympic or world championships medals dating to 1976, but Tuesday marked the first gold medal in an individual event.

Diggins, already the U.S. cross-country skiing record holder for Olympic medals (one of every color), world championships medals (now six) and individual World Cup wins (14), added another feather to her cap.

“It’s wonderful to have a monkey off your back, even for an athlete as decorated as Jessie,” U.S. coach Matt Whitcomb told NRK. “She probably couldn’t tell you all the stats about herself. All she can tell you is that you give her a course like this, and she knows she can at least be tied for the lead with regards to going the hardest. That’s really the attribute of Jessie that’s most admirable. She can just go out there and suffer.”

It was historic. It was also emotional.

Diggins attributed the tears not only to the team effort of wax techs, coaches, physios, nutritionists and massage therapists. But also because she has been away from home, and largely away from her newlywed husband, all season.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love to do what I do because it’s not easy,” she said.

Diggins called this a season of ups and downs. In December, she tied and broke retired Olympic champion teammate Kikkan Randall‘s U.S. record for World Cup wins.

But before the World Cup circuit began, teammates woke to find her curled up in a ball on the bathroom floor in November. Diggins believed she caught a 24-hour flu bug after traveling to Europe.

Then at the Tour de Ski, a Tour de France-like stage race that wraps around New Year’s, she had finishes of 40th, 30th and 40th. Scandinavian media recommended she withdraw from the Tour, which she won in 2021.

Diggins kept racing, skiing the fastest time in a pursuit and then capping the Tour with a fifth-place result in the grueling final stage, a 10km climb up Alpe Cermis in Italy.

“I knew I was in good shape, especially because of [the pursuit],” Diggins said Tuesday. “But, to be honest, we struggled with the wax on my skis, and you have to have everything to have a competitive race. That’s why when we win, we win as a team.”

Diggins continued building with three podiums in her last five individual races before worlds, then an impressive display in Sunday’s team sprint.

Next, she bids for more history, looking to help the U.S. to its first medal in a relay on Thursday. Diggins was part of U.S. relays that finished fourth or fifth at each of the last five world championships.

Tuesday “might have been” the perfect race, she said.

“All the pieces came together -- your body and your brain and your pacing and your technique and the skis and the weather,” she said. “That was very special.”

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