Jessie Diggins - “The gold medal in my pocket helped my voice to grow even louder”

With glittered cheeks and a never-say-die attitude, the ebullient American cross-country skiing history-maker faces no shortage of attention. That’s why when she’s not winning gold or scooping up World Cup titles she redirects her time into causes she cares about.

By Chloe Merrell
Picture by 2020 Getty Images

When cross-country skier Jessie Diggins lunged herself across the line at PyeongChang 2018 a nation released a roar of delight.

The American, alongside teammate Kikkan Randall, had achieved what none of their countrymen or women had ever done before: claimed gold in a Winter Olympic cross-country event.

Immortalised not just for the significance of the feat but for the way it was captured by announcer Chad Salmela's cries of “Here comes Diggins!” their victory propelled them both to great media fame.

Hot off flag-bearing at the Closing ceremony, the then 26-year-old then did something unprecedented.

In a blog post entitled ‘Body Issue(s)' the Olympic champion harnessed the attention that was flooding her way and revealed to the world that at the age of 18 she had suffered from the eating disorder bulimia.

“As soon as I shared that I became a better role model,” Diggins said to the Olympic Channel in 2018.

“Suddenly I became more relatable, and people realised it’s OK to have a struggle, and to ask for help, and to move through a tough time in your life and come out the other side a little bit better for it.”

Since her life-changing revelation the American has never looked back.

Realising the apparent gap between public and athlete and the force of her influence as an Olympic gold medallist, Diggins advocates for several causes close to her heart.

Jessie Diggins: Bearing her battle with bulimia

It was a female body empowerment photoshoot done in conjunction with ESPN Magazine that first prompted Diggins to share.

“This is a blog post I wasn’t ever sure I’d write,” the skier began on her blog site. “It can be scary to reveal the less glamorous parts of ourselves to others, the parts we’re sure that nobody will love.”

“When I was 18-19 years old, I had everything in the world going for me, but I struggled with confidence and didn’t love myself. I suffered from an eating disorder, and eventually sought help at a treatment center, checking in for a summer program that saved my life.”

“Posing for ESPN was a real full-circle moment for me, and a chance for me to use a large stage to waltz right up the microphone and share a message that I think is extremely important, and long overdue.”

The conversation Diggins was eager to drive was one about body image, self-confidence, and disordered eating.

As well as extensively detailing the harsh realities of her ordeal and how she overcame them in her book ‘Brave Enough’ the Minnesota native is also an advocate for the Emily Program – the same organisation that provided her treatment at her lowest point.

One of the most important things Diggins realised about sharing her past was the impact she had.

In shedding the ‘superhuman’ image often attached to Olympians, she had made herself accessible and someone to who people could relate to:

“When I was 18 and I had an eating disorder I needed to know that it wasn’t my fault and that getting help was a brave thing to do, and it would have really helped to know that the people I looked up to, they were my heroes, but they were human too,” the cross-country star continued to Olympics.com.

“It was really amazing seeing the outpouring of support from the community. I heard from so many young women, boys, coaches, ‘Wow, thank you. I needed to know that for my athletes.’”

To this day, Diggins continues her fight on changing the dialogue around body image. Just this year the skier had an encounter with a journalist post-race where her bodyweight was brought up in a question.

She detailed the encounter in another blog post, demonstrating the importance of her advocacy work:

“I told him that he needed to learn how to talk to women. Secondly, he may never comment on a skier’s body. That is not ok. I pointed at my headgear, the Emily Program, and asked him to take a second and think about why I race with that specific logo on my head.”

From Olympic gold to the corridors of Congress

April tends to be the month of the year that cross-country skiers take time off and, you would think after achieving her historic feat in 2018, that Diggins would have rest on her mind.

On the contrary.

Alongside other Winter Olympians, Diggins appeared in front of U.S politicians on Capitol Hill to present her experience of the World Cup circuit in recent times.

She explained how disappearing snow and shortening winters were not only impacting her ability to train and compete but also the local economies of the places she was skiing at.

“We're your canaries in the coal mine. We see [climate change] happening all over the world,” Diggins said in a congressional briefing.

At the end of the trip, the Olympic champion decided to throw herself fully into the fight against climate change and signed up to the Protect Our Winters (POW) alliance.

Now she is a board member of the group and is focused on using her platform to draw attention to the impact the warming world is having on cold environments:

“It feels shameful to admit, but for years I was never very outspoken about climate change,” Diggins writes on the POW website. “I knew it was a serious problem that needed to be addressed, but I questioned who would ever listen to me?"

“I eventually realized that no matter who you are, people DO listen to you. You have a voice, and it matters. In my case, the Gold medal in my pocket helped my voice to grow even louder.”

Inspiring girls to stay in sport

Even before Diggins was a household name, social causes had always been close to her heart.

As far back as 2011 the medallist from Minnesota has been blogging about Fast and Female – a program that targets sport drop-out rates among young girls and encourages them instead through the empowering capacity of sport to stay involved.

Using workshops where role models such as Diggins attend, girls aged nine to 19 are connected within their communities to set goals and take on challenges all with the aim of helping them realise their potential.

In 2014 Diggins wrote on her blog, “It’s funny because one day I’m dressed in pink and glitter and dancing around in a skirt, and the next day I’m still dressed in pink but I’m skiing all-out on the treadmill during testing until I fall off.”

“It’s not an either-or situation for me. I don’t have to choose between being girly and loving chick-flicks and wearing pink sometimes or skiing hard and fast. And that’s one of the messages I think it’s so important to pass along to your girls in sport.”

MORE: Five things to know about Jessie Diggins

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