I just finished reading Jessie Diggins’ inspirational autobiography Brave enough. She is most famous for the historic first Olympic gold medal for the US women’s cross-country team, which she won in the team sprint with the great Kikkan Randall in 2018. I think the call of the finish by Chad Salmela, former member of the US biathlon team, ranks up there with Al Michael’s call of the US 1980 hockey win. You can see a clip of the finish here, Chad is the one losing his voice (and his mind). Jesse outkicked Stina Nillsson of Sweden, who was the highest ranked sprinter in the world in 2018. If you want to see a replay of the entire race, which was 3 legs each by the two members of each team, it is here, with a British commentator who also does a nice job. Seeing the joy of the entire team after the finish still gives me goosebumps.
But this was the tip of the iceberg, the book lets of see the years of hard work that went into this. And it is a delightful look at Jessie growing up in the small town of Alton, Minnesota, and the surrounding countryside, involved in an array of outdoor activities.
I was unaware before reading the book of the dark period Jessie went through in her teens, when she developed an eating disorder. This is not uncommon among endurance athletes, who can become obsessed with being lean. Fortunately, with the help and support of the Emily program in St. Paul, she recovered before this had done serious damage to her health. The combination of high-volume training and an eating disorder can be devastating, even fatal.
After recovering, Jessie spent years with the US national team as they started to find success in the world cup, in which she continues to participate at a high level. But it is the story of the amazingly difficult training these athletes endure that was the most inspirational for me. It is often several hours a day, six days a week. What was most interesting to me was her description of how “cross country skiers are made in the summer”, building a tremendous base of strength-endurance by activities like roller skiing, running and ski bounding with poles, and weight lifting. I also enjoyed reading about the camaraderie on the team, who truly are like a family.
Unfortunately, cross country skiing is one of the sports that only gets noticed by the general public every four years during the Olympics. But there are a ton of good videos of cross country skiing on youtube, both of the world cup and the Tour de Ski, which I love watching, so I’ve had plenty of exposure to Jessie’s further exploits as well as those of other great skiers since 2018, and look forward to more in the future.