Hart lost to Diggins by .07 of a second at the 2010 Minnesota state high school championships, after a classic 5K considered the greatest Nordic race in state prep history. Diggins' generosity as a training partner -- and her example of discipline and dedication -- helped Hart to a breakthrough season this year, putting her on the Olympic team alongside her fellow Minnesotan.
Diggins often says she is at her best in team races, because she wants so badly to win for her teammates. Hart said it's impossible not to follow her lead.
"Jessie can dig deeper than anyone I know," said Hart. "She was born with that ability. But she also has the willingness, the desire to push herself to the point where she's blacking out during a race. She wants to be the best, and she's very determined."
Pursuing another summit
Diggins' success -- and her personality -- have elevated the profile of the U.S. women's cross-country team heading into the Pyeongchang Games. She is appearing in a national TV ad for Comcast, shot in Afton, and her dog, Leo, has joined her in an internet campaign for Milk-Bone. Diggins also has been featured in Shape and People magazines.
Despite her growing national and international fame, she remains very much a child of Minnesota. Diggins writes a blog for the Minnesota Youth Ski League website, donates her racing suits to young athletes and visits with Hansen's high school team. In November, she conducted a free clinic at Theodore Wirth Park, followed by a meet-and-greet in the chalet; more than 50 people joined her for an outdoor workout on a cold, drizzly night, and dozens more waited as long as 90 minutes to wish her well in Pyeongchang.
"In the youth ski league, even the little boys say she's their favorite," Hansen said. "Everyone knows Jessie. Everyone likes her. And everyone is going to be cheering for her at the Olympics."
Diggins knows what a medal would mean to cross-country skiing in America. Last summer, to prepare herself to plumb the darkest corners of the pain cave in Pyeongchang, she looked for a follow-up to her Appalachian adventure.
This time, she roller-skied for 100 kilometers. She came away thinking that if she could ski for 6 1/2 consecutive hours, she could do anything. That includes getting the U.S. women to the Olympic mountaintop, a marathon journey 46 years in the making.
"The sport needs this," she said. "It needs someone other than the Scandinavians to be ranked in the top five or six in the world. To me, it feels like it's not a responsibility, but a privilege to help change the culture of skiing to 'Yes, we can.'
"We have another chance. And I'm gunning for it with all my heart."
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