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Jessie Diggins talks gold medals, skiing, and eating disorders as part of Wordplay’s online fest

Image courtesy Jessie Diggins

Image courtesy Jessie Diggins

At only 28 years old, cross-country skier Jesse Diggins is already the most decorated U.S. athlete of her ilk in World Championship history. Minnesota can certainly take some credit for her success: While Diggins was born to Canadian parents, she grew up in Afton, Minnesota, where she was surrounded by wilderness. She spent much of her time being active outdoors. 

“I think that really helped steer me in the direction of sports,” she says. “It was only natural that I would go from running around in the woods to running around training for skiing. It led me to appreciate sports where you could be outside.”

By her senior year of high school, she knew she wanted to be a professional skier. She went straight from graduation to practice with a professional ski team.

But it wasn’t all smooth skiing for Diggins. In her new memoir, Brave Enough (co-written with Todd Smith), Diggins details her struggle with bulimia. At her lowest point, she was purging five times a day—after every meal she ate. She wanted to share her eating disorder experience with others and show that it didn’t have to end her career. 

“I think sometimes we tend to glorify athletes as these superhuman, untouchable creatures. For most of us, we have things we struggle with, we have obstacles that we have to get over, and I thought it was really important to share my really real and raw story,” she says. “If I can talk about it on a national, very public stage, maybe it will give someone else the courage to approach a friend or teammate or a parent.”

She doesn’t hold anything back in her book’s description of the eating disorder, from punishing exercise regimens to frequent vomiting. But she also wanted to emphasize how she healed. Intensive outpatient treatment from the Emily Program in St. Paul and support from her parents were crucial in her journey back to health.

“Asking for help is really brave. It doesn’t make you weak. It shouldn’t make you ashamed,” she says. “It’s a mental illness. It’s not your fault. It is overcome-able. But you do need professional help. If you were diagnosed with cancer, you wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’ll just fix this on my own. I don’t want to tell anyone.’ You would build a support team around yourself. You would tell your family and friends. And, of course, you would have a team of medical professionals helping you out.”

Today, her approach to eating, training, and body image has taken a total 180 from those dark times. “I hated myself. I never thought I was good enough because I was trying to be perfect all the time. I was never really happy because, of course, I wasn’t perfect. I was so hard on myself back then,” she says. “But now, I realize I can be happy and successful and have a wonderful life without trying to be perfect.”

Diggins now works with a sports psychologist who helps her prepare for races and deal with stress. She has a nutritionist who ensures she’s getting enough fuel for the training she’s doing. And she has a coach who helps her write her training plan.

“I have this awesome team that helps me make sure I’m on the right track. I trust my team and I trust myself,” she says. “Today, I’m really happy to say that I have so much confidence in myself, in my body, in my skiing and training and racing. It was a hard-fought battle to get to this place, but it’s a wonderful feeling to have that trust in myself.”

She has formed a partnership with the Emily Program to open up the conversation about body image and healthy eating for athletes, emphasizing that professional athletes come in all shapes and sizes. 

The book, which catalogs her professional path and accomplishments, culminates with Diggins’s historic gold medal win at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. While she was the first ever U.S. cross-country skier to receive that honor, she’s surprisingly humble about it. 

“It’s one of those things that it’s sort of like a life perk. It’s a bonus,” she says. “You’re always going to have that. It’s a great memory. It’s always going to bring a smile to your face. But in every other way, it hasn’t really changed my life. I’m still the same person. It doesn’t make you any happier or more confident. You’re still just trying to be a really good person every day.”

Being an Olympic gold medalist is a tool she uses to promote causes she cares about, like eating disorder awareness and climate change activism, but she doesn’t want the big win to be something she falls back on. Besides, Beijing 2022 is just around the corner. And she has no plans of slowing down—and certainly not of retiring anytime soon.

“I’m going to race until I’m not enjoying it anymore,” she says, “but right now, this is the most incredible career I could’ve imagined.”

Diggins will help kick off Wordplay Festival, which has moved online, with a live event starting at 11 a.m. Tuesday, April 7, where she will give a talk, a Q&A session, and lead an Olympic workout. Check out this link for more info and details about this week’s Wordplay schedule.