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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

Embracing the 'pain cave'

It wasn't the Vermont mountains, but Afton's River Road was as close as Diggins could get during her summer break in Minnesota. For that matter, it wasn't much of a break, either.

The grind of elite cross-country ski racing requires as much discipline and rigor in warm weather as it does when the snow falls. Once a week in the offseason, whether she's training in Minnesota or with her team in Vermont, Diggins supplements her workouts with something extreme: maybe a 20-mile run, or a 3 1/2-hour session of roller skiing. Or her gut-busting climbs on roller skis up the daunting grade of the River Road.

"It's the steepest hill in Afton, about as high as Afton Alps," Hansen said. "She will roller-ski up that hill for 4 1/2 minutes, absolutely as hard as she can. And then she'll turn around and ski down so she can climb it again. She'll do that 10 times, even though she's just about ready to collapse. Her work ethic just amazes me."

That seemingly bottomless capacity to endure pain -- even to welcome it -- has distinguished Diggins since eighth grade. When she talks about blacking out at the finish line, or vomiting, or feeling as if her lungs are about to explode, her voice rises with excitement and her eyes widen in wonder.

Diggins calls it the "pain cave," that point in every race where muscles scream and the mind goes dark. Her greatest fear, she says, isn't the agony that awaits. It's the idea that she might finish a race without that sensation, knowing she didn't wring every last drop of energy out of her body.

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"I'd say in 60 percent of my races, I am not fully conscious at the finish line," Diggins said. "I've had people come and unclip my skis, and I couldn't tell you who it was because I was so out of it. And I'm proud of that.

"There is a certain joy in the fact that you're pushing your body to a new limit. You figure out how strong you are mentally when you find that wall and somehow push past it."

It's a quality that's essential on the World Cup circuit, where every athlete is swift and strong. As Diggins has ventured deeper into the pain cave since Sochi -- "there's a lawn chair in the back, with my name on it," she joked -- her results have reflected that commitment.

At last year's world championships in Lahti, Finland, she won a silver medal in the freestyle sprint and bronze in the classic team sprint with Sadie Bjornsen. Her four career medals at worlds -- including a gold in 2013, in the freestyle team sprint with Kikkan Randall -- are the most of any U.S. woman in history. Diggins and Randall became the first Americans to win a world championship in cross-country skiing, and in 2013, they were the first U.S. skiers to win a World Cup team event, in the freestyle team sprint.

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