Streaming channels have been having a big hit with sports reality shows lately. “Drive to Survive” captures the speed and glamor of Formula 1 racing, and “Break Point” the glamor and psychological grind of great tennis. (There’s even “Welcome to Wrexham,” which focuses on the glamor of possess a soccer team.) However, if you were going to do a series about Nordic (cross-country) ski racing, there is only one possible theme: not the glamor but the sheer suffering involved in what is often considered the most demanding sport. of the world. You’d have to call it “The Cave of Pain,” and it would have to star Jessie Diggins, because the Minnesota native has demonstrated like few before her the ability to survive in that black hole that arises when your body begins to run out of energy. fuel.
Diggins wrote the final chapter of his saga Tuesday morning in Planica, Slovenia, where he did something no American had done before: He won a gold medal in an individual cross-country ski race at a world or Olympic championships. The United States is focused on the quadrennial Olympics, but the rest of the skiing world is just as interested in the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships, which take place in the odd-numbered winters preceding and following the five-ring games. . This year’s championships are in Slovenia, and Tuesday’s race was Diggins’ specialty, the 10K skate. She did not come into this contest as the favorite; After all, the event is called Nordic skiing, and the Swedes and Norwegians are almost always the best in the world. But after a long run of firsts, he won the United States’ first Olympic gold in the team sprint relay at the Pyeongchang Games in 2018 with Kikkan Randall, who was narrating yesterday’s race over the Internet, who it’s the only way Americans can watch these races, everyone knew Diggins was rightfully on the hunt for his first solo title.
He had won a few races on the World Cup circuit earlier in the year, including a memorable outing when his contact lenses froze, he says, because he didn’t blink enough during the last part of the race, but he fell apart in the early segments of the annual Tour de Ski, the grueling multi-day race that crosses three borders and has been become one of the best drawing cards in the sport. She was frustrated enough to start arguing with the Norwegian ski media (anyone who thinks Norwegians are completely rational and composed should use Google Translate to check the ski pages of the Oslo tabloids), who insisted that she should drop out. the rest of the tour to rest for these Planica events. Diggins, who loves to compete, unsurprisingly pushed on on the Tour but, uncharacteristically, skipped a World Cup stop in the run-up to Slovenia. And, during the weekend, he also missed the first distance race of the World Championship. (Her unlucky teammate of his, Rosie Brennan, was near the front of that ten-mile contest, until one of her bindings snapped and a ski skidded off.)
Diggins prepared for Tuesday’s race with Sunday’s team sprint, in which she was paired with rising American star Julia Kern and took bronze, behind Sweden and Norway. Diggins had sought her best physical condition in that race, charging from gun to treadmill, and setting even higher expectations for Tuesday’s race. There is little coverage of cross-country skiing in the US media, but there is a lovely podcast, hosted by Devon Kershaw, a former prominent Canadian now studying medicine in Norway, with Nathaniel Herz, a journalist living in Alaska. A few weeks ago, they spent some time wondering aloud if Diggins could really suffer more than other skiers: there was some feeling that maybe his signature finishes, where he collapses across the line, are a bit cheesy, though like half the game. field does. the same in any given race, it seems unlikely that he is putting on a show.
In fact, it’s not really that Diggins works harder than others; everyone in this sport works at levels that the average human body can’t even reach, in part because it’s about the only sport that uses every muscle at the same time. (Swimming and rowing too, but in the water buoyancy is your friend, and rowers can at least sit down.) Swedish Frida Karlsson, for example, was not available to stand on the podium when she won this year’s Tour de Ski because she was being given oxygen and put into an ambulance. But Diggins seems to have mastered the art of stay present in pain Tuesday’s race, an individual start contest, in which skiers start solo, at thirty-second intervals, was a textbook example.
Diggins was among his main competitors, Karlsson and fellow Swede Ebba Andersson, each more stylish skiers than Diggins. As the three made their way around the track, the shouting trainers were able to let them know their approximate positions from one another, and at the five-mile mark, Diggins was barely ahead, just a couple of ticks on the clock. Like most races, this one ended with a plunge mostly downhill, and by the time your body is completely exhausted, the overwhelming temptation is to simply let gravity do most of the work during that descent: with lactate flooding your muscles, it’s hard to do much. more than aiming the skis and holding on, which is enough work on skinny boards with no edges at speeds in excess of thirty miles per hour. (Your correspondent became hypoxic enough during a run on Sunday, at the former Olympic track in Lake Placid, that he managed to ski completely off the track in an unknown direction, though he recovered enough to take second place in the race. career). age group of men from sixty to sixty-nine years). Diggins, however, associated with gravity; she managed to work on the downhills, pushing hard through the corners and picking up speed, and by the time she crossed the finish line she was a relatively comfortable fourteen seconds ahead of Karlsson.
She lay panting for a few moments in the snow, but then got to her feet and made her way to the leader’s chair to watch the rest of the race, even as the cameras turned back to her. The next Swede, the gutsy Andersson, came in a little further back, and then the split times for the remaining challengers, a pair of Norwegians, were slow enough that Diggins knew he had won. He quickly burst into tears, and was embraced by his teammates and coaches. His first words to the press were thanks to the “technicians” in the waxing booth, who had made his boards slippery enough to be competitive.
Diggins has spoken time and again about the team culture that has helped American skiers thrive in recent years: It’s primarily an individual sport, but given the fact that competitors spend five months a year living together, at a ocean away from home, bonding has become crucial. Diggins had a glow on his cheeks as usual on Tuesday; he has been helping decorate the other american women for years, not to mention guiding them in TikTok dance sessions. And, while she has one individual race left in this championship – it’s a thirty-kilometer race at the end of the week – a distance in which she won silver at the Beijing Olympics last year – she’s almost certainly more focused on the team relay on Thursday. . In that race, four American women will go five kilometers each, and they have a real chance to win a bronze, which would be a first for them, and would probably be as sweet for Diggins as gold for him.
For the moment, however, he is enjoying his individual triumph; she is one of the best endurance athletes the United States has produced perhaps since Joan Benoit Samuelson took home the gold medal in the first women’s Olympic marathon, in 1984. Nordic skiing faces many problems, most notably global warming. ; Some races in Europe this winter have been on narrow strips of artificial snow against the green and brown of the alpine countryside, and the first few races of this meeting were unbelievably hot. (A Norwegian woman won a bronze medal skiing in lycra shorts.) But there was fresh snow on the ground Tuesday morning in Slovenia, and against that backdrop, Diggins did something no American cross-country skier will ever be able to match: she became the first to overcome the pain and grab a gold medal. ♦