The US cross country ski team keeps climbing. Up next: Hosting a World Cup race

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — After Jessie Diggins secured the first American Olympic gold medal in cross country skiing six years ago, her agent urged her to pursue her most ambitious desires in that moment of cultural adulation.

She shrugged off the trip to Disney World or a new car.

“I want a World Cup in Minneapolis,” Diggins declared after she and Kikkan Randall won the team sprint in South Korea at the 2018 Winter Games. “He said, ‘Ooh, that’s a big ask!’ But I was like, ‘That’s the one thing I want to have happen out of this.’”

After a false start in 2020 due to the pandemic, the World Cup is coming to the U.S. in the fulfillment of that dream Diggins has long had and worked hard to help make happen.

The Feb. 17-18 races at Theodore Wirth Park overlooking downtown Minneapolis will mark the first American stop on the annual cross country skiing tour in 23 years. More than 35,000 tickets have been sold for the Stifel Loppet Cup, a figure organizers believe would spike much higher if space allowed.

“You can only safely service so many people, but that level of response has triggered what we know is a national level of interest in the sport,” said Claire Wilson, executive director of the Loppet Foundation.

Long accustomed to living the hotel life and lugging oversized duffel bags all over Europe, Diggins and her teammates finally have the opportunity to perform in front of the red-white-and-blue-clad fans.

“Imagine you were Joe Mauer and you just never played in Minneapolis,” said Wilson, referencing the Minnesota native recently elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. “That’s what these athletes face every year. The U.S. ski team is so excited to be here, like over-the-moon excited.”

Diggins grew up in Afton, a mere 30 or so miles east of the course. She was 19 the last time she lined up for a competitive race in the U.S. Now she’s 32. Teammate Rosie Brennan is 35.

“I’m really excited to get to share this with all these people who have only ever seen me on TV,” Brennan said. “It’s really mysterious to a lot of people: ‘Like, what is she actually doing all winter?’”

Skiing fast, for one.

Entering competitions this week in Canmore, Alberta, Diggins leads the World Cup standings on the women’s side. Brennan is fourth. Sophia Laukli is 20th. Ben Ogden (15th) currently has the highest rank on the men’s side.

The U.S. team already has 17 top-three finishes this season, including nine by Diggins, with six stops left on the tour schedule. Laukli recorded her first career World Cup victory in the final stage of the Tour de Ski in Italy last month, conquering the famed Alpe Cermis hill climb — with a peak 28% gradient — and becoming at age 23 the youngest American to win an individual World Cup race.

Last year, the U.S. season podium total was 11. When Diggins launched her international career 13 years ago, the Americans totaled only four top-three finishes — all by Randall.

“We’re starting to burst into that next tier, and on every level, too, not only at the top,” Ogden said. “We’re getting podiums, we’re getting wins, but also the people who come over for their first World Cup are putting down really solid races. In previous years or generations, coming over to the World Cup was an experience. You were there for the experience. You weren’t there to put down results.”

The impact of the Diggins-Randall gold medal in 2018 on the sport can’t be overstated. The Minnesota Youth Ski League, the club in which Diggins first found her love for the sport, has added eight new chapters since then. But the steady rise of the Americans can be traced back more than a decade earlier to a philosophy shift in team development.

“For the last four Olympic cycles, instead of focusing our resources on those one or two stars currently in the pipeline at any given moment, we focus on building a men’s and a women’s team,” head coach Matt Whitcomb said. “Because nobody sees a superhuman athlete and says, ‘Wow, I could become that person.’ It just seems too distant. The hurdle’s too high. But when you see a tribe, a group of people effervescing in this high-performing environment, this positive team energy you can just feel by reading about it and by watching it on TV, that’s the ethos that does our recruiting for us.”

The U.S. is the only team among the top 10 nations in the sport that doesn’t get government funding. The Americans have a dimes-on-the-dollar budget compared to powerhouses Norway and Sweden.

“I had a lot of years where it took a leap of faith to believe I was going to come out the year with still something to live on and being able to pay rent and not beg my parents to take me back,” Brennan said. “I’m immensely proud I stuck it out long enough to get to this point and be able to just live there for a little bit. Now I feel like I just get to enjoy racing for the sake of racing.”

Diggins has been feeling similar emotions, for different reasons. She publicly acknowledged last year a relapse of her teenage-diagnosed eating disorder and has been trying to prioritize mental health over physical training this season, after realizing the unhealthy dose of self-applied performance pressure she’d been living with since the historic win in South Korea.

The results on the 2023-24 World Cup circuit speak for themselves. She can’t wait to come back to her home state to maintain that momentum.

“When I’m happy and I’m myself, that’s when I’m the most dangerous on the course because that’s when I can really push myself,” Diggins said recently. “When you see extra glitter and extra smiles, that’s usually a good thing.”

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