The phrase “control the controllables” is recited so frequently by athletes that the cliched phrase has lost some of its meaning.
But for Olympic cross-country skiing gold medalist Jessie Diggins, that mentality is at the core of her success.
“I know I sound like a broken record, I know you hear me say this all the time, but I just get so focused on what I can control,” she said during a media call on Tuesday.
Diggins brought that attitude to the 2022 Tour de Ski, which she described as a “tour of rollercoasters.” The 30-year-old entered the six-stage competition as the defending Tour de Ski champion and opened the week with two wins in three races. (Video of Diggins’ thrilling sprint finish in the 10km freestyle is embedded above.)
But in the fourth race – a classic sprint – Diggins was taken out during a quarterfinal round collision with Sweden’s Frida Karlsson.
“I will never know how that could have gone and that, unfortunately, is the reality of cross-country skiing,” Diggins said. “Sometimes it turns into a contact sport when people aren’t playing by the rules very well.”
Diggins said that Karlsson, who was disqualified for obstruction and given a three-minute time penalty, apologized for taking her out.
Then, ahead of the fifth stage, Diggins came down with a “little head cold,” noting that she tested negative for Covid-19 twice and consulted with the team doctor before deciding to ski the remainder of the competition.
“These last two days have taken every ounce of energy that I have,” she said on Tuesday. “One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is making it up that final climb today and I am so proud of crossing the finish line.
“It is possible to do things that are crazy, crazy hard.”
The Minnesota native ultimately finished the Tour ranked eighth. Russian skier Natalia Neprayeva won the event with a cumulative time of 1:59:38.5, with Sweden’s Ebba Andersson (+46.7 seconds) and Norway’s Heidi Weng (+1:07.7) finishing second and third, respectively.
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Ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which officially open on February 4, Diggins will – of course – continue to focus on what is within her realm of control.
“I know how to push hard… I know that when I cross the finish line, I will have given everything that I have.”
So when she considers the fact that she hasn’t yet trained on the Olympic course? It’s not a big deal.
“Everyone is kind of going in blind together,” she said.
While sports typically hold test events in the lead-up to each Olympics, elite cross-country skiers haven’t had an opportunity to train in Beijing.
In August, the international federation that oversees cross-country skiing (FIS) distributed video previews of the Olympic courses.
“I have a really good idea in my mind’s eye of how it will look and have used visualization to fill in the gaps, [like] putting snow on the ground,” Diggins said. “But obviously, until you ski it, it’s impossible to really know.”
Another thing she can’t control? The technique each Olympic event is contested in.
In cross-country skiing, races are contested using one of two techniques: classic (both skis stay parallel) and freestyle (resembles a skating motion). The two techniques – in addition to using different equipment and types of wax – also utilize different muscle groups.
When Diggins and Kikkan Randall won gold in the team sprint at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics – marking Team USA’s first ever gold medal in cross-country skiing – the event was contested in the freestyle technique.
But in Beijing, the team sprint will be a classic race.
“Our sport is so crazy because you only do the same Olympic race every eight years, which is wild,” Diggins said. “Technically we’re not defending a skate (freestyle) team sprint at this Olympics… I’ve used that to take a lot of pressure off of myself.”
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