America’s cross-country ski star Jessie Diggins still struggling after eating disorder relapse

It’s July, a time of year when Jessie Diggins, the greatest American to ever strap on a pair of cross-country skis, is usually immersed in her off-season training, the hours of roller skiing, running and strength work that He likes them almost as much. like going through the snow in Norway in the middle of winter.

But something is wrong. She is feeling something she has never felt before; She’s just not sure she wants to keep doing this.

She thinks about next season, about the four months of traveling away from her husband, in a constant state of fatigue, trips to the “cave of pain” in almost every race. In her 32 years on the planet, she has never had to look for motivation, she has never been afraid to exercise, she has never wanted to do anything more than push her body and her mind to the brink of exhaustion.

However, it was more complicated than that.

The eating disorder she had struggled with during her adolescence and early career, a condition prevalent in her sport, was back. That wasn’t supposed to happen. He thought he was over it, something that years of therapy had eradicated from his brain. However, for weeks she had been fighting it again.

And for the first time an idea occurred to him:

“I don’t have to do any of this.”

“I don’t need to win another race as long as I live,” Diggins, a world champion and three-time Olympic medalist, said earlier this fall, recalling the feeling after her summer setback.

For anyone who’s had even the slightest glimpse of Diggins’ career (most likely that final, nail-biting sprint across the finish line at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics to win America’s first gold medal in cross-country skiing), the idea It’s hard to fathom that his brain had reached the point where he thought about quitting ski racing.

There are few athletes who experience both training and competition with the joy that Diggins experiences. And it has always been that way, during the seasons (and off-seasons) when she was a nobody and when she was an Olympic champion and the best skier in the world.

This is how Diggins, better known as a sprinter than a distance specialist, won his second medal at the Beijing Olympics – a silver medal in the 30 kilometer race – after a bout of food poisoning left whether he would make it to the start line in doubt. He blocked out the pain, set out to lead his team another day and fought his way to a third Olympic medal after also winning a bronze in the individual sprint earlier in Beijing.

Diggins didn’t quit that day and he didn’t quit this summer either. He will begin another season, his 14th, this weekend in Ruka, Finland.

But it’s not because he wants to look for another opportunity to get on the podium. That wasn’t why he ran that day in Beijing, after a night of sweating and vomiting. On the bus to the race, he read an email from her mother, who knew how sick she was, reminding him that she ran because she loved what she did and she loved challenges, and who knew, they might end up being the ones she did. better days. of his life.

Mom was right (aside from the emergency medical intervention Diggins required afterwards). But it wasn’t because she ended up with another medal. It was because she felt like a celebration of the community that propelled her into this life.

There was her mother’s email, her conversations with her husband on the other side of the world, as he often does, offering whatever support he could. Two of her companions slept with her in the Olympic Village to help her rest. The wax technicians tuned her skis to perfection. Her teammates and skiers from other countries, who knew how sick she had been, trudged through the snow up the final climb, urging her on as her body and brain began to shut down in the final miles.

“I felt like everyone was cheering me on,” he said last month during a 20-mile run in Central Park in New York, his favorite interview spot.

Last summer’s support, perhaps the toughest of his adult life, was different, but no less impactful. She didn’t know what she was going to hear when she called her coaches and told them that she was sick and that she didn’t know if she would be ready for the start of the season, if at all.

No one, he said, put out a calendar or set a timetable for returning. They told him to take care of himself as best he could, to ask for what he needed and not to do anything that would put his health at risk. It was like they didn’t care if he ever ran again.

That was comforting to Diggins, especially given all the questions elite athletes have raised in recent years about whether the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee viewed them as medal-winning machines or human beings. The organization and its national governing bodies, which directly oversee individual sports, have attempted to pay as much attention to athletes’ mental well-being as their physical health and to offer psychological services that do not prioritize sports performance.

“You want to be able to live and compete happily and healthily,” said Alex Cohen, a USOPC psychologist who works primarily with winter sports athletes. “They go hand in hand”.

Diggins won silver in the 30km event in Beijing in 2022, a marathon race that is not his specialty. Two medals in Beijing brought his Olympic career total to three. (Feng Kaihua/Xinhua via Getty Images)

That hasn’t always been so easy for Diggins, who has taken advantage of every ounce of her position as a trailblazer and role model, sometimes to her detriment.

He finds it terrible to turn down requests to appear at schools or ski clubs, or anywhere where there might be a child whose life could change. If you’re not raising money and awareness about eating disorders, then you could be meeting with public officials to pressure them on climate change legislation. On the US Ski Team, she is not only the best player, but also a kind of captain, big sister, and den mother for both women and men.

In retrospect, she said, the pressure she puts on herself to perform all of these roles to the fullest is what led her to relapse.

“You can’t be perfect,” he said.

She knew it; Even the best skiers lose, or rather don’t win, most of their races. She simply thought that she had far overcome the obstacle that had caused her so many problems years ago, when she endangered her health by depriving herself of food and making herself vomit.

Now she had to accept the idea that bulimia was a part of her and probably always would be. That didn’t make her a failure, which is what she felt the first time. So is she.

“A little piece of me that my brain will have to be aware of for the rest of my life,” he said.

As she worked on that idea in therapy and her blood tests showed she was healthy enough to train, her motivation began to return. She hadn’t lost her love for moving her body outdoors or being part of a team, one reason she thrives in relays.

There was also something else. Following that important gold medal in 2018, his agent asked him what he wanted: a free trip to an exotic island; a fancy car?

He thought for a minute and decided that what he really wanted was a World Cup cross-country race in Minnesota, where he grew up, the rare region of the United States where Nordic sports are part of the culture. The World Cup circuit takes place mainly in northern Europe. Bringing the entire sport to Minnesota might be a stretch, his agent said.

But then the FIS, ski’s world governing body, put a race in Minnesota on the calendar, for March 2020. It was one of the first events canceled by the pandemic, but Minnesota returned to the calendar this season, this time in February .

As a child, the only way Diggins could watch a World Cup race was on a VHS tape in her basement. What she would have given to see a local hero compete against the best skiers in the world in her backyard. Additionally, her grandparents have not seen her run in person since she was 19 years old.

Diggins wasn’t about to miss that: a chance to express herself and her passion at home in her own unique way, sliding and crawling through the snow, then collapsing at the finish line.

“You’re sharing some of your soul with people,” she said of those moments, which, in some ways, aren’t so different from telling the world about her battles with bulimia, then and now. “You are so vulnerable that you are letting everyone see you at your weakest point. But there’s something powerful about that, when you let people in like that.”

(Top photo of Diggins at the 2023 World Nordic Championships: Daniel Karmann / Picture Alliance via Getty Images)