Jessie Diggins enjoying banner year heading into world championships

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Rachel Blount, Star Tribune
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Most athletes find the more they win, the happier they become. Jessie Diggins sees things the other way around: The happier she is, the more likely she is to win.

"Happiness is fast," Diggins said last week from her training base in Davos, Switzerland. "I feel like I can dig deeper than anyone else out there when I'm happy. I can really, really suffer for the 26 minutes of a race."

The cross-country skier from Afton has been very happy this winter, which has made her very fast. And very successful. As the Nordic world ski championships begin Wednesday in Oberstdorf, Germany, Diggins leads the women's World Cup overall standings, putting her in position to become the first American woman to win the overall crown.

The 2018 Olympic gold medalist will be among the favorites in several events at the world championships, which run through March 7. She's already made history this season by winning the prestigious Tour de Ski — the only American ever to do so — and reaching the World Cup podium eight times. Diggins now has 33 career World Cup medals, surpassing Olympic team sprint partner Kikkan Randall for the most by a U.S. cross-country skier.

It seemed joy might be an elusive commodity on the World Cup tour this winter, with the pandemic wrecking schedules and routines. Diggins and her teammates had to look a little harder to find it, but once they did, it fueled what she called "a season of my wildest dreams."

"To be here preparing to race is kind of amazing, and really cool in such a challenging year," she said. "We've had a really positive environment on the road, which is so important.

"It's easy to get fixated on results, but that's also the thing you have the least control over. The thing I will look back on is our positivity as a team. We held it together through a lot of uncertainty and looked for ways to come together safely and lift each other up. That's huge."

In addition to her Tour de Ski triumph last month, Diggins has won three individual World Cup races this winter. She has worked hard to improve her classic technique and her versatility, seeing big improvements in both.

Diggins built her fitness through summer training in Vermont. But with the pandemic limiting travel, she wasn't able to get on snow until the first races in November. The early-season success of teammate Rosie Brennan, and a fun Christmas spent with teammates in Europe, kept Diggins' spirits high as she rounded into top form.

With six top-10 finishes and two bronze medals in classic races this season, Diggins has moved closer to her goal of being able to win any type of race on any day. Her three victories and eight podium finishes are career bests.

"For a long time, Jessie has been known more as a skate competitor who does extremely well in head-to-head competitions," U.S. cross-country coach Matt Whitcomb said. "What people are starting to understand is, there is no race that she can be counted out in any longer.

"She's a much more efficient skier now, so she's able to be with the pack through the gamut of races we'll see (at the world championships). If Jessie's in the pack with a kilometer to go, people are in trouble."

Though the pandemic has canceled races, kept spectators away and limited athletes' ability to socialize, Diggins said the Americans have found ways to stay upbeat. Netflix, yoga and frequent Skype sessions with family and friends have kept the mood light and the stress low. Several U.S. athletes have enjoyed career-best performances this season, including Brennan, who has two World Cup victories and is third in the overall standings.

Diggins is especially proud of how she handled the pressure of the Tour de Ski, with eight tough races in 10 days. She will get another test at the world championships, where she will be among the favorites every time she races.

Her schedule is likely to include the 10k freestyle, the classic sprint and the skiathlon, as well as the team sprint and 4x5k relay.

"I'm excited to bring the sparkle and bring the energy and really just hit those races with everything I have, and with confidence," she said. "I know when I cross that finish line, there's going to be nothing left. And I feel good about that."