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PARK CITY, Utah — Gus Schumacher woke up one morning in late February four years ago and immediately noticed the post-it note his mother had left on his computer.
“Watch the race,” he would say.
Schumacher knew what race her mother was talking about: the women’s team sprint at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The race had taken place while he slept, but Schumacher, an aspiring professional cross-country skier, did as he was told. And in the dark in Alaska, as he watched Jessie Diggins emerge from the final corner in South Korea with a burst of power and speed to secure his team’s gold medal – America’s first medal of any kind in skiing background since 1976 – all he thought about was his future as an offbeat competitive racer.
“It completely changed my mindset,” said Schumacher, now a 21-year-old Olympian at the Beijing Games this year. Just like that, he says, his dream of competing with the best skiers in the world didn’t seem so far-fetched. “It’s the idea that you can do it too, if things go well. And I’m not the only one to think so.
“All those years of waiting and waiting for something to happen, and then something big happened,” said Kevin Bolger, another member of the United States team in Beijing.
The medal remains a key moment, marking the before and after of the team. In addition to changing the worldview of dozens of American female skiers, the victory also propelled Diggins into a rare role for a female athlete: as de facto captain of a team made up of men and women, and leader of his sport in the United States. States.
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She’s the skier who organizes team-building activities during training camps, like watching “The Great British Bake Off” or a Bob Ross video at a team paint party, or choreographing another team dance. She’s the one who answers questions from teammates about training and life on the World Cup circuit. She’s the one whose success younger competitors, men and women, hope to emulate, and the one who harasses ski federation officials for more support for everyone.
“I want to look back on my career and not just say, ‘Wasn’t I great?'” Diggins said during a recent interview in the lobby of Utah’s Utah Training Center. US Ski and Snowboard Association, where a 10 foot banner of her hangs from the rafters. “I want to be able to say that I used my time wisely. I helped improve American ski culture. I helped develop the sport. I helped grow the team. »
Diggins, a spindly 5-foot-4 spark plug with bright eyes and an infectious smile, had no intention of playing such a big role. But she can be persistent, especially when it comes to lobbying her federation for the kind of support – financial and otherwise – that she and her teammates say they need to compete with better-funded teams.
Diggins begins her run in Beijing on Saturday in the women’s 15km skiathlon, a race contested half classic and half freestyle.
She is haunted by the early years of her career, when European national teams had ski waxing budgets larger than the total US cross-country ski team budget. Diggins’ pleas have allowed the team to have a full-time traveling chief, more physical therapists and the money that allows teammates with less lucrative sponsorship deals to focus on training instead of keeping busy. a second job.
She’s also won a lot, which definitely helps her voice carry. Diggins won her first world championship gold in 2013. She has since added three more wins and 12 World Cups; last season she became the first American to win the overall Cross Country World Cup title.
Diggins’ unique stature on Team USA may also have something to do with team logistics and demographics. As its performance began to peak in recent years, several veterans of the team retired. Suddenly, Diggins was not only the most accomplished skier on the team, but also one of its most experienced.
Additionally, as nearly all World Cup races are held overseas, the men and women of the team live, eat, train, travel and compete together from November to March each year. They also meet for off-season training camps. This creates a traveling group that is both a ski team and a Partridge family.
In recent years, the men on the team, who have yet to excel at the level of Diggins and some of her teammates, have taken notice of how Diggins and the other women prioritize helping each other. It can be as simple as making sure you’re on time or packing lunch for a teammate who needs a blood test in the morning. But feeling confident can also involve more nuanced behaviors: cheering up a skier who’s having a bad day or celebrating someone who’s having a great day even if you didn’t.
“Jessie has always said the Olympic medal belongs to everyone,” said Bolger, a 28-year-old sprinter who has been on the national team for the past three years.
Nobody pays more attention to Diggins than Julia Kern, a 24-year-old who went to Dartmouth and was Diggins’ roommate in Europe last season and trains with Diggins in Vermont. Kern was competing in a lower-level race in Germany four years ago when Diggins and Randall won gold in Pyeongchang. She and her teammates postponed a practice session so they could watch the race live, then bragged about it to everyone they spoke to that night.
When Kern first met Diggins, she said, she was eager to learn the ingredients for her secret sauce. Living with Diggins, Kern quickly realized there was no secret: Diggins, she says, eats well, sleeps well, trains hard and does what she needs to do to recover for the next workout. And then she wakes up and starts again, day after day after day, believing that the work that produced her gold medal may one day produce another.
Its success has brought higher expectations and a new level of pressure. Diggins achieves this through mental, physical and technical preparation: countless hours of watching videos, timing drills to improve her classic skiing technique in an effort to become a more fearsome all-around skier.
She started meditating so she could calm down and lower her heart rate before races. She also honed her visualization skills so she could close her eyes and see every turn of the Olympic course which was built into the side of a punishing hill in Yanqing.
“I can improve in all these little ways,” she said.
And yet, she knows how unforgiving the Olympics can be. A false step, a mistake, can make the difference between winning and ending up far from the podiums that make careers and legends. All she can do, she said, is make sure she’s ready to cross the finish line with no more energy, completely immersed in the “cave of pain”.
That’s what Scott Patterson, who trained with Diggins for a dozen years, remembers seeing at Diggins four years ago. He watched from the side of the track in Pyeongchang that day, then sprinted across the snow to celebrate with Diggins as she crossed the finish line. They celebrated for so long, in fact, that course officials eventually had to chase the Americans away so they could start the next race.
Three days later, as Patterson lined up for the Olympic 50-kilometre race, he said a thought crossed his mind: Women did it. Here is my chance. He finished 11th, the best finish ever for an American in the grueling distance.
This week’s events, and the leadership Diggins has shown since, have recreated a world in which America’s cross-country skiers know they can be the best on the biggest stage.
“The younger ones,” Patterson said, “they believed from the beginning.”