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US skier Jessie Diggins works hard and dreams big, inspiring her teammates at Olympics

Rachel Blount, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Olympics

At first, all she wanted to do was run a marathon. It didn't take long, though, for Jessie Diggins to realize she wasn't thinking big enough.

Her coach didn't want her racing on pavement, so he made her agree to one condition: she had to run the 26.2 miles along the Appalachian Trail. Intrigued by the challenge, Diggins chose a demanding route that carried her over four mountain peaks in Vermont. For nearly seven hours, she ran nonstop, hurdling fallen trees and high-stepping over rocks and roots.

"At the end of it, I was like, 'Wow,' " Diggins said, still feeling the rush two years later. "I have so much appreciation for my body and what it can do. What it feels like to be strong as a woman and an athlete, to be able to run up and over mountains. It was such an empowering feeling."

That helps explain why Diggins is not intimidated by the fact that no American woman has ever won an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing. That long stretch of futility doesn't mean it's impossible, just extremely difficult -- kind of like running a marathon in the mountains. Having conquered one of those ambitions with no problem, Diggins believes there is no reason she can't handle the other at the Pyeongchang Winter Games.

Diggins, 26, enters her second Olympics as a more seasoned and technically sound skier. The biggest transformation has happened in her head. With four world championships medals and a long list of historic achievements, she knows she belongs in the cross-country conversation with the dominant Norwegians and Finns and Swedes.

"Jessie is at the point now when she gets up to the starting line in almost any race, she thinks, 'I could win this,' " said Kris Hansen, who coached Diggins in high school and still trains with her in the summer. "Four years ago, the idea of making the podium was still like, 'Well, maybe, if everything goes perfectly.' That is a huge change for her. She's done with that starry-eyed, just-happy-to-be-there phase."

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At the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Diggins learned firsthand how elusive the Olympic podium can be. When the U.S. failed to live up to its hype and came away empty-handed, she doubled down on her preparation for Pyeongchang.

She's already shown she can go farther than anyone expected. When her coaches looked over her Appalachian marathon course, they checked her math -- and discovered she had actually run 30 miles.

"Having four world championships medals gives me this boost, thinking, 'You know, I've done this a couple of times,' " said Diggins, who is third in the World Cup overall standings. "It's not a shot in the dark. It's not, 'Maybe in my wildest dreams, this could happen.' Nope. I've done this, and I know what it takes.

"Is that a guarantee that a medal is going to happen? No. But I'm working my absolute hardest, and I've done it before. Going into these Games, I know it's possible."

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