A Skiing World Cup Comes to the United States

With the planet having just endured the hottest twelve months in human history, it’s not surprising that winter has been a dreary affair across North America this year, especially in the Midwest. As of mid-February, most average temperatures across the border states were ten degrees or more above average, and ice coverage on the Great Lakes was at an all-time low. As the Washington Post explained, the Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index showed cities from International Falls to Toledo experiencing record mild winters. If the eruption of a giant Indonesian volcano in 1816 created a “year without a summer,” then the endless raging fire of coal and gas and oil is now starting to create years when winter is a memory.

Minneapolis—where winter temperatures are normally among the lowest for any major metropolitan area in the Lower Forty-eight, about the same as in Anchorage—may have felt the fever more keenly than any place in the country. The Twin Cities set a record twenty-three straight days in which the temperature was above the freezing mark; the final weekend of the U.S. Pond Hockey championships was cancelled, owing to insufficient ice; and the Ice Palace of Minnesota closed for the season on January 27th. The city takes a certain pride in girding itself for winters; it maintains a huge array of skywalks linking sixty-nine downtown blocks, so that people don’t have to venture outdoors in the blustery cold. But this winter those hanging walkways seemed as hauntingly vestigial as the boat ramps on the drought-drained reservoirs of Colorado. Through the middle of February, Nashville had seen more snow than Minneapolis had.

And then, in the twenty-four hours around Valentine’s Day, two things blew into town. One was the Nordic-skiing superstar and Minnesota native Jessie Diggins, accompanied by the rest of the international cross-country élite, for the first World Cup ski race on American snow in almost a quarter century. Diggins has worked her entire career to persuade the Europeans who run the World Cup to make an American stop; she’d come within a couple days of succeeding in March, 2020, when the outbreak of COVID shut down the races. This was the second chance—quite possibly the last chance to race at home in her storied career—and so she and everyone else had been sweating out the high temperatures, bracing themselves for the somewhat dismal scene of a ribbon of man-made snow winding through a muddy park. But then, by some kind of almost cinematic magic, Diggins was borne home on a cold front that came with the first real snow of the Minneapolis winter, six inches of fluffy white powder that covered the ground with forty-eight hours to spare.

Diggins is the greatest winter endurance performer the United States has ever produced, and, more than any other racer I’ve seen, she wears her heart on her sleeve—and her glitter on her cheeks, a trademark that has spread to her teammates. There was a glitter booth at Wirth Park, the golf course just minutes from downtown Minneapolis where the races were held this weekend, and thousands of young spectators were sporting their own shine. That glitter epitomizes the sheer joy with which Diggins seems to race, in a sport long dominated by the typically more reserved Scandinavians and Russians. And that joy, in turn, seems to have helped build the camaraderie that has turned the U.S. into an implausible ski power, this year more than ever, with a bunch of Americans ending up on podiums across northern and Central Europe. The implausible part is largely due to the hardship of having to compete in Europe all winter—in a normal year, U.S. skiers have to pack their bags in November to head to Finland, and they don’t get home again until the end of March. They may be the only athletes in the world who never get a home game. Diggins noted that this was the first time she’d seen her husband since the races began in the autumn.

And though Diggins’s long career has earned her every possible honor—world-championship gold, and medals of all three colors at the Olympics—this year seemed like it might be very different. Having struggled with an eating disorder early in her career, she reported its return to her more than two hundred thousand Instagram followers this fall. “Sometimes, getting everything you ever wanted comes with unexpected pressures,” she said at a pre-season press conference where she spoke with typical frankness about her bulimia. “Maybe a home World Cup comes with extra pressure and expectation. I’ve also struggled with that. I wouldn’t want to disappoint people, or let them down.”

She figured out, though, how to deal with the trouble, rounding up the support she needed. And then she managed, at age thirty-two, to raise her game to a new level. She won the Tour de Ski—the seven-races-in-nine-days contest that’s the sport’s premier annual event—and has opened a wide, almost certainly insurmountable, lead for the crystal globe that goes to the season’s points champion, which meant that she came to Minneapolis wearing the yellow bib that belongs to the world leader. When she came out to warm up an hour before the racing began, there were already thousands of Minnesotans lining the course and, as she reached the steep hill where most of them were waiting, there was a wave of jubilant sound. You could see it hit her almost like a physical force; she slowed and, even from a distance, it looked as if she was tearing up. “I cried about seven more times today,” she said later on, “all for the best reasons.” All day, as the heats of the day’s sprint races proceeded, you could track her progress around the course simply by listening for the pandemonium that the sight of her produced. As it happened, she finished fourth—a posse of young Swedes have been setting the pace in these shorter races all season, and last week was no different. But missing the podium didn’t dim the crowd’s affection, nor her mood. “This was the coolest day of my racing career,” she said (and this is someone who nicked the opposition at the line for America’s first Olympic Nordic gold, as the NBC commentator Chad Salmela hollered, “Here comes Diggins!”). “I could retire happy right now,” she added, before quickly saying that she isn’t planning to.

The rest of the field seemed almost as awestruck by the crowd, which according to the skiers seemed bigger and more attentive than at any European stop, save Oslo’s famed and venerable Holmenkollen. Federico Pellegrino, an aging Italian great, said that he, too, almost cried simply because so many people knew his name and were cheering him on. And Johannes Klaebo, of Norway, the greatest male Nordic skier of all time, after predictably winning the men’s race, took a microphone to tell the packed grandstand, “We need to come back here, that’s for sure,” which was the right thing to say—more wild cheering ensued.

Nordic skiing is an unusual sport in that competitors will sprint one day and then race much longer distances the next. Sunday was a ten-kilometre affair (many of the same skiers will do a 50k race in a few weeks, in Norway), with an interval start, so that the skiers began thirty seconds apart, and their time was taken when they crossed the line after three long loops through the park. The men were first up, perhaps because the organizers may have thought that it would be a relatively routine race: the Norwegian men are at least as strong as the Swedish women, and many of the distance races this year have ended with three of them on the podium; meanwhile, the last American man to win a distance race was the legendary Bill Koch, in 1983. But there were signs that the men’s team was starting to break out. Two of them—the Alaskan transplant J. C. Schoonmaker and the Vermonter Ben Ogden—had ended up on podiums in the course of the year. But it was another young Alaskan, Gus Schumacher, who seemed to be having a career day as the race progressed. The loudspeaker was reporting that he was in the lead and the cheers built as he skied, but as most of the European superstars were starting behind him, everyone expected it to be temporary—including Schumacher. He later said, “I heard that I went into the leader’s chair,” Schumacher said. (The race leader gets to occupy a throne of sorts, under the watch of the TV cameras, until he is displaced by a faster skier.) “And I was like ‘Sweet! I gotta get on that thing!’ ” before the next finisher turned in a better time.

But one powerhouse skier after another came in a few seconds slower, and Schumacher later said that he started to think he might end up in the Top Ten, and then that he might end up on the podium. A former junior world champion, he’d wandered in the skiing wilderness for a couple of years—in the 2022 Olympics, in Beijing, he’d come in nine minutes behind the leader in one race. But he’d had several Top Twenty finishes this year, and it was clear that Sunday was going to be much better. As his teammates watched other finishers come in slower, they began to cluster around him, daring to hope, but I’m not sure anyone quite believed that he would win until the regal Klaebo tore in, moving fast, but still six seconds slower than Schumacher over the ten kilometres. The wait for the last few Norwegians to cross the line was excruciating, but then it was over, and Diggins and several of the other women lifted Schumacher on their shoulders at the finish, as the crowd roared his name.

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