Five-time Olympian Kikkan Randall and two-time Olympian Jessie Diggins had never placed higher than fifth at the Games, and an American hadn’t won a cross country skiing Olympic medal since Bill Koch at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
History didn’t offer much hope for the U.S. heading into Wednesday’s women’s cross country skiing team sprint freestyle at the PyeongChang Olympics.
Five-time Olympian Kikkan Randall and two-time Olympian Jessie Diggins had never placed higher than fifth at the Games, and an American hadn’t won an Olympic medal since Bill Koch at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
Just the day before, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the largest newspaper in Diggins’ home state of Minnesota, had published a story with the following headline: “Afton's Jessie Diggins makes no apologies over not winning any medals.”
In the piece, Diggins defends her near misses, amid immense expectations.
“You always want to medal. That’s why we’re here,” she told the newspaper. “But there are other things that are also really important, besides the hardware.”
Still, Diggins and Randall developed and executed their strategy. They put themselves in a position to battle far more celebrated opponents. They took home the gold in an electric finish that’ll be one of the PyeongChang Olympics’ defining moments. So inspiring was their performance that Team USA athletes voted Diggins to be the country’s flag bearer at the Closing Ceremonies.
“Jessie’s breakthrough performances here in PyeongChang have been inspirational and historic, and her success is representative of years of teamwork and determination from all our athletes,” United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said in a statement.
Here are three inspiring lessons from Diggins’ story:
Diggins had placed fifth in the skiathlon, sixth in the sprint and fifth in the 10K at these Olympics. Her teammate, Randall, meanwhile, had competed in 17 Olympic events without a medal, most notably at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, when she was a heavy favorite to win the sprint free event.
“Courage isn’t always winning,” Diggins told the Star Tribune. “Courage is sometimes standing up and saying, ‘That wasn’t what I hoped and dreamed for, and I’m going to try again.’ I think this is a team that has a lot of courage and a lot of bravery and a lot of guts.”
On Valentine’s Day, Diggins competed in the 10k freestyle, finishing in fifth place, just 3.3 seconds out of a medal. Afterwards, on Instagram, she shared this message with her followers.
“Don’t be sorry for me because I just missed a medal … be happy WITH me, because I fought … today! I pushed my body so far past its limits. I’m actually kind of amazed I didn’t pass out on that final climb. Looking back and knowing you gave it absolutely everything you had without holding back is a great feeling.”
Still, Diggins couldn’t ignore the expectations of her and the U.S. team. She and Randall were the first U.S. skiers to win a World Cup team event at the 2013 world championships, and the U.S. team had five podium finishes and three victories in World Cup events heading into the Olympics.
Her response? Gratitude.
"To be that close (to winning a medal), and to be skiing with the best in the world, is so awesome,” Diggins told the Star Tribune.
Besides, Diggins is driven by something personal, internal.
“What really drew me to the sport was that it's so tough yet so beautiful and graceful,” she told NBC Olympics. “It's a sport that demands so much of you, and challenges you to dig deep down inside yourself to see what you're really made of.”
The team sprint is a brutal event, requiring two teammates to take turns skiing three legs of .77 miles each on a challenging course. And, oh, they have a full hour to recover between the semifinal and final!
Randall and Diggins formulated a plan, and they shined in the semifinal with a time of 16:22.56, 10 seconds faster than one of the heavy favorites from Norway in a separate heat.
They were conservative in the first lap, then Diggins pushed the pace in hopes of tiring out competitors. By the fifth lap, Randall aimed to stay close to Norway's Marit Bjoergen and Sweden's Charlotte Kalla — arguably the top two cross-country skiers in the world — and try to give Diggins a shot at medaling.
Though in excellent position, Diggins still wanted to be patient.
"I wanted to be in third to be able to get that draft and get a slingshot into a really good position," Diggins told NBC Olympics.
Entering the final stretch, Diggins was in third place, and she trusted herself and her team’s plan.
“I’ve been in the best shape of my life these Olympics, and the team events always bring out the best in me,” Diggins said. “When you have someone that you care about so much, waiting for you at the finish, you’re never going to give up, ever. So those last 100 meters, I dug really, really deep.”
Diggins made her move at the Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Center, taking the wide turn to overtake Maiken Falla of Norway. Then, in the final straightaway, Diggins chased down Stina Nilsson of Sweden and edged her by 19-hundredths of a second for the gold medal.
Diggins crumpled to the ground in exhaustion and jubilation after crossing the finish line, and Randall hopped on top of her.
“Oh my gosh, did we just win the Olympics?” Diggins recalled.
The inspiring finish wasn’t lost on anyone, including the competition.
“Olympic champions, they are so worth it,” Kalla, a silver medalist, graciously said, according to the Associated Press. “They were amazing. I’m really impressed with them.”
Randall, in her fifth and likely final Olympics, is the only mother on Team USA, and Diggins is 26 years old.
Because their sport is more popular in Europe, they are often on the road, so they spend a lot of time together and away from their families.
They make silly dance videos, and Diggins is nicknamed the “Glittery Fairy.”
Since high school, Diggins puts glitter on her cheeks during races.
“Glitter, for me, is this promise to myself that I got into this sport because I love it,” she told The Guardian. “It’s a reminder of the little girl who just wants to go super-speed.”
After all, before she could even walk, her parents were packing her in a backpack and taking her on trails every weekend.
“I’d be pulling on my dad’s hair and yelling at him to mush like he was a sled dog,” Diggins told The Guardian.
Her parents guided her toward skiing but instilled in her something more important.
“They taught me to love skiing for life, not just for racing,” she told The Guardian. “My parents drove me to countless practice sessions, washed all my smelly workout clothes, bandaged me up when I fell on my roller skis, took me to races and gave me all the hugs I could want after I finished. They never stopped believing in me and even if I doubt myself I know they always have my back.”
On Sunday, Diggins will have o carry her nation’s flag at the Closing Ceremony.
“I actually thought there maybe had been a mistake. I was like, `What? I can’t believe this,’ ” Diggins said on the TODAY show. “It is so humbling, and I feel so honored to have been picked.”