Jessie Diggins – Brave Enough
By Jonathan Wiesel, Nordic Group International
Timing is a curious thing. I got this writing assignment/book review on a January afternoon, and within minutes a Canadian friend emailed (you could tell that he was EXCITED!) to say that American Jessie Diggins had just won the 10 km World Cup cross country skate race in Falun Sweden, beating Norway’s Therese Johaug – generally considered the world’s top woman Nordic skier – by 2.1 seconds. (Whoa, all that in one breath!) And this was a few days after Diggins (ok, “Jessie” to a host of folks) had won the incredibly taxing multi-day, multi-country Tour de Ski.
Yep, it’s the same Jessie Diggins who teamed with Kikkan Randall to win the first U.S. XC Olympic Gold ever, at PyeongChang in 2018. I suspect that for a lot of Americans, this is about the only thing they know about cross country skiing. And intriguingly, it turns out that she’s not simply a superb athlete with incredible self-discipline but also a caring, cheerful (bubbly!), genuine person (hard to believe all these qualities encapsulated in one spirit, but it’s so) – and now an author.
Jessie’s book Brave Enough is more than the clichéd “good read.” Some of the quality is surely due to co-author and professional journalist Todd Smith; but it’s a fascinating study in personality and evolution, or maybe call it maturation. I’d love to know her, for her skiing accomplishments – but just as much the generosity and loyalty she extends to family and friends, to her teammates (who are both those things), and to small-town Afton Minnesota, where she grew up. I’d guess that the authors got along famously, which explains a lot of the appeal of Brave Enough. Bet they had some fascinating conversations!
Ok, why the title? Along with strengths of a tight-knit, loving family, athletic ability, endless energy, and so much more, culminating in that sprint Olympic gold, there were some painful and frightening bumps. One was the terror (not just an annoyance) of exercise-induced asthma. The most traumatic issue – one of the most mesmerizing and honest portions of this absorbing book – was overcoming bulimia. I for one knew very little about this potentially lethal, prolonged eating disorder, and its catalytic element in Brave Enough reaches far beyond skiing. With a great deal of help, she dealt with the harrowing experience and went on from there.
Constant threads in Brave Enough include a deep-rooted love of the outdoors – swimming, dancing, rock climbing, roller skiing, not just cross country skiing. Jessie learned to adore downhills on her Nordic skis, combining energy, competitiveness, and adrenaline-fueled speed.
And the stories! Like her high school coach’s perception that “Jessie’s got some serious energy, really sloppy technique, but she’s got something.” Learning to push past her pain threshold. The harrowing experience of a manipulative teammate who lied about Jessie’s bulimia. Bone spurs. Winning her first national championship, shortly followed by 65th place in her first World Cup race in 2011…
Jessie won multiple national championships in 2012, followed by World Cup podiums. This could have been heady stuff for a 21 year old from the rural Midwest, but Jessie stayed… well, not always calm and self-assured, but committed. As she said about a disastrous relay race that year, “We came together as a team. Nobody pointed fingers. Nobody blamed anybody else. Nobody was angry. It was awesome.”
And then there was the travel – the flights, strange lodging, training in Alaska and New Zealand (bungee jumping!), months on the road. Jessie’s travelogue sucks you in, with incidents like inadvertently getting stuck on a train from Oslo to Trondheim (happily she and Sadie Bjornsen got out at the next stop).
I could go on at length; fortunately, Jessie does just that.
Jessie’s a remarkable person with fascinating stories and insights. Perhaps my favorite line in the book is, “I have realized that I don’t have to be perfect, as long as I keep working on it.” That’s a marvelous approach to life.
If you’re interested in cross country skiing or sport generally, or the human condition, Brave Enough is going to speak to you wisely, entertainingly, and endearingly.