Jessie Diggins gets a hug from her mother, Deb Diggins, at the end of the race after finishing fifth in the women’s 10km Free at Alpensia Cross-Country Centre on Thursday during the Pyeongchang Olympics. Carlos Gonzalez / Minneapolis Star Tribune

By Jimmy Lovrien for the Weekly Observer

As U.S. Olympian and Minnesota native Jessie Diggins, a Nordic skier, finished the last of her training before the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, her grandmother, Betty Santa of Duluth, did some training herself in preparation for her trip to South Korea.

“Last time at (the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games), there was so much walking … so I’ve been training to get my strength up in my legs so I can do more walking,” Santa said last week.

The extra walking came in handy for Santa, who lives on Pike Lake.

“My fitness app shows I walked up 52 stories and almost 17000 steps yesterday, I feel like I’m in training lol,” Santa wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday.

Jessie Diggins of Afton, Minn., competes in the women’s 10km Free on Thursday in the Olympics. She finished fifth. Carlos Gonzalez / Minneapolis Star Tribune

Diggins’ connection to the Duluth area runs deep. Her mother, Deb Diggins — then Deb Robinet — grew up on Pike Lake and is a graduate of Proctor High School. During the winters, the Diggins family would join Jessie’s grandparents — Clif and Betty Santa — for ski outings across Pike Lake, where Clif set tracks using a homemade groomer.

The family would also ski together at Snowflake Nordic Ski Center and, years later, Jessie won her first high school section race there.

U.S. Olympic skier Jessie Diggins (56) of Afton, Minn., leads a group of skiers up a climb on her way to finish fifth in the women’s 10km Free on Thursday. Carlos Gonzalez / Minneapolis Star Tribune

This year, many expect Jessie to earn an Olympic medal. It would be the first for an American woman. Bill Koch was the first, and so far only, American skier to medal at the games, when he won a silver medal in the 1976 Winter Olympics.

On Thursday, Jessie almost ended that drought when she placed fifth in the 10-kilometer freestyle, just 3.3 seconds away from a bronze medal.

Jessie placed fifth in the skiathlon Saturday and sixth in the classic sprint Tuesday.

U.S. Olympic skier Jessie Diggins catches her breath at the end of the race in the women’s 10km Free Thursday in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Carlos Gonzalez / Minneapolis Star Tribune

Jessie has two more chances to medal during these games. She’ll compete in the 4x5k relay Saturday and the team freestyle sprint Wednesday.

“It’s been so exciting to see Jessie doing so well on the Olympic stage,” Deb said over email Thursday. “She has been giving it her all every race, and to be able to pull these results across three entirely different races is a rare gift.”

Jessie Diggins of the United States competes in the Women’s 7.5m + 7.5m Skiathlon in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (Carlos Gonzalez/Minneapolis Star Tribune/Tribune News Service)

But long before Jessie competed internationally, her father, Clay Diggins, skied with her in his backpack.

“So she’s been skiing for a long time. She’d been on her dad’s back when she was a baby and just went from there,” Santa said.

But Deb didn’t cross-country ski while growing up in the area.

“I was totally a Spirit Mountain alpine skier,” Deb said with a laugh. Her husband, Clay, convinced her to try Nordic skiing when the two met at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. The two landed in Afton, where Jessie grew up and skied for Stillwater Area High School.

Clif Santa (Jessie’s grandfather), Betty Santa (Jessie’s grandmother) and Clay Diggins (Jessie’s father) ski across Pike Lake near Duluth in the winter of 1992 or 1993 as a 1-year-old Jessie Diggins hitches a ride in her father’s backpack. Jessie will compete as a Nordic skier for the U.S. at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where many expect her to medal. (Submitted photo)

With most World Cup races taking place in Europe, Santa and the Diggins family often stream Jessie’s races online early in the morning. Last month, they gathered at the nursing home in Silver Bay, where Clif lives, to watch Jessie win her fourth World Cup medal, this time in the 10K mass-start freestyle race. In that race — the last before the Olympics — she beat World Cup overall leader Heidi Weng of Norway by seven-tenths of a second. “We were just getting so excited and yelling, and the cook said, ‘Hey, there’s people sleeping around here,'” Santa said.

Deb loves moments where members of the Diggins family can gather to watch Jessie succeed at the international level.

“I think one of the most fun parts of this has been being able to share it with our family because they are all so excited,” Deb said. “They all saw her growing up and setting a dream that was a pretty big long shot, and she went for it.”

U.S. Olympian Jessie Diggins and her grandmother, Betty Santa of Duluth, pose after a 2016 race in Canmore, Alberta, Canada. (Submitted photo)

Santa likes to spread her excitement outside the family, too.

“I’ve got my golf friends following, my cooking friends following. I have no shame,” Santa said. “I just brag all over the place.”

The support has not gone unnoticed.

“Jessie really appreciates all the love and support she is getting from Minnesota,” Deb said.

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