Jessie Diggins: Learning to dream big

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“Being on the high school team was what really made me fall in love with skiing and getting to do it alongside my friends was what made me fall in love with training,” Jessie Diggins says.

Jessie Diggins was already dominating the Nordic ski trails of Wisconsin and Minnesota before she could even walk. Affixed to her dad's back, the boisterous toddler and eventual skiing superstar was just along for the ride in those early days.

"I used to yell, 'Mush,' like a sled dog driver while pulling his hair," said the five-time U.S. champion. "I always wanted to go faster."

Both long-time skiers, Diggins' parents made the sport a family affair. By the time she was old enough to stand, she was outfitted with her own tiny pair of skinny skis.

"It was always just a fun time with family," the 22-year old said. "Skiing gave us the chance to spend time together and enjoy the outdoors."

As she became more adept on the snow, she began entering her first races, usually no longer than 2-kilometer kids races.

"I always thought it was cool to get a medal, and I really loved the hot chocolate afterwards," she laughed.

Even still, Diggins tried her hand at a variety of other sports -- swimming, soccer, track, dance. Joining the ski team in seventh grade at Stillwater High School in Minnesota, however, solidified her devotion to the sport.

"Being on the high school team was what really made me fall in love with skiing and getting to do it alongside my friends was what made me fall in love with training," she said.

Her first taste of competitive racing came at the end of that seventh-grade season when one of her senior teammates got sick before the conference meet. As an alternate, Diggins managed to take her place, skiing onto the section and state teams. This was when she started to dream big.

"My dad had a bunch of video cassette tapes of World Cup and Olympic ski races, and we would sit in the basement and watch them as I did my homework," she said. "It was so fun to watch those races and hear my dad marvel at their technique and speed."

Diggins began to internalize the strength, endurance and grace she saw on the screen as she started entering her first junior national races as an eighth-grader.

"By middle school I decided I just loved the lifestyle, from the training camps in the summer to world junior championships and other international trips," she said. "I thought, 'I really love this and want this to be my job.' "

After winning three state championships and nine junior titles by the close of her high school career, Diggins decided to do just that. Although she had been accepted to college, she deferred in order to fully devote her time to training.

"I figured I can do college at any point in my life, but I only have one shot at this," she said.

Having snagged the gold medal in the team sprint at the World Cup with Kikkan Randall in December 2012, as well as the gold at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in February 2013 -- both firsts for U.S. skiers -- she hasn't regretted the decision for a second.

"I just love the challenge of skiing. Every race is an opportunity to learn about yourself; you have to dig so deep and push so hard," she said. "It's cool to take on a challenge 99 percent of the population wouldn't want take on, especially when all the hard work pays off."

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