Born and raised in the skiing town of Afton, Minnesota, Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins’ cross-country legacy almost looks like destiny. But her path has been anything but smooth. In her new memoir, Brave Enough, she gets real about her eating disorder, self-doubt, and the races that didn’t always go so well.
In one chapter, she describes the metaphorical concept of a “pain cave” as “the loving nickname we crazy endurance athletes give to that special place that we go into during a competition when every inch of our body hurts.” Diggins compares this experience to the broader lessons she’s learned from her struggles. “My ability to … straddle this threshold between courage and collapse has been one of the defining characteristics of my athletic career,” she writes. It’s safe to say Diggins does not sugarcoat her story.
[Editor’s note: Although the gold medalist was scheduled to compete at the Coop FIS Cross Country Ski World Cup Sprint Finals on March 17, at Theodore Wirth Regional Park, that event has been canceled due to the coronavirus. For now, her book launch is still scheduled for April 5, at Stillwater Area High School.]
We sat down with Diggins to talk about the athlete’s pivot into publishing.
Tell us how growing up in Afton sparked your love of cross-country skiing.
My dad just loves skiing. He taught my mom, and she fell in love with the sport as well. When I was a baby, they would just put me in their backpack and go off on their ski dates together. I was on skis before I could even walk. Every weekend, our whole family would make a pancake breakfast and then go to the Minnesota Youth Ski League and just basically play games on skis with other kids all day. I thought it was so awesome.
In high school, I joined the Stillwater High School ski team. And that was just this really awesome extension of what I’d already been loving.
How did you decide to write a memoir?
I was sort of on the fence about it. There are a lot of sports memoirs out there. But I realized how much you can help people by sharing the tough parts of your struggles: the eating disorder chapters, the races where things didn’t go well, the times when things fell apart. It can be a real hope for people to learn like, “Wow, it didn’t go perfectly, and she figured out how to get out of it.”
It ended up being so fun writing about all the funny stories, the crazy traveling around Europe, and the training we do. My co-author Todd Smith was just so awesome. He really got what I was trying to do. I didn’t know anything about writing a book. Going through that process was a lot of work, but it was a really fun reflection on how my career and life have gone.
Tell us about your journey to recovery from an eating disorder.
When I was 18, I was very serious about ski racing. I was racing at an international level as well as racing for my high school team. I really loved it and had such a supportive team and an amazing coach and family. But I’m a very Type A personality—I’m what you would call a perfectionist. I was obsessed with trying to make everything as perfect as possible, which is just not realistic.
I had this misguided notion that if I was going to be one of the best athletes in the world, I had to look a certain way. I started labeling certain foods as bad, thinking I had to be a certain weight and going for extra training runs, even when I’d already done my training for the day. And then I ended up slowly spiraling into bulimia and a full-on eating disorder after a few months.
How did you decide to get help?
My parents had a very serious intervention with me, and I ended up, with my parents’ help, going to the Emily Program, and that really saved my life. They taught me that food is fuel and there weren’t “bad” foods or “athlete” foods. Your body just needs fuel. I worked with the dietitian and therapist in group therapy, and I really healed. But it still took a lot of work over the next few years to really get that self-confidence back. Healing from an eating disorder is a long process, but it’s so necessary.
Now that you volunteer with the Emily Program and their sister organization, WithAll [Disclosure: my employer has provided branding services for WithAll], what do you want young athletes to learn from your story?
That even for someone they might look up to as a hero … it hasn’t always been perfect. I’m hoping that honestly revealing that really tough time in my life will help bring understanding and compassion to other parents, teammates, coaches, or teachers. And for someone going through an eating disorder, I want them to see, here’s how I healed. Here’s how I got better. Maybe this will work for you, too. I’ve opened up the conversation, and I allow people to come and ask me questions that maybe they’d be scared to ask someone else. I just know that I can be a helpful resource, as someone who’s been through that whole path.
How did you choose the University of Minnesota as your publisher?
The University of Minnesota Press was so excited about it and really sweet. We thought, “Let’s keep this local.” They were so awesome to work with.
The cover art is so bold and striking. Tell us how you decided on the art direction.
I wanted it to be pretty raw and unfiltered, because the book is this really intimate look inside of my life. My teammate Julia Kern took [the photo] while we were in a training in New Zealand, on the top of a mountain. It just really fit with the whole theme.
What advice do you have for people who want to ski, or sign their kids up for skiing?
If you want to get into it as a family, sign up for a chapter of the local ski club and join a local group near you. If people have no idea where to start looking, I really recommend the website Skinny Ski (skinnyski.com). They do trail reports, and you can look for fun events coming up.
If someone wanted to spend a day in Afton, what should they do?
We like to go hike in the Afton State Park, which is, like, two miles away from downtown. I love the Afton House Inn, and the Current restaurant, which is attached to it. They both have amazing food and really friendly service. It’s pretty historical, too.
What are your favorite local trails?
I grew up skiing Willow River State Park, just over the river from Afton in Wisconsin. I love that trail, especially the Brown trail. I love skiing Giants Ridge and William O’Brien State Park. I’ll put it this way: There’s no path that I didn’t enjoy.
What to Say—and Not Say—to Athletes
In her work with local nonprofit WithAll, Diggins helps coaches take responsibility for their impact on athletes’ self-image and relationship to food. Diggins describes her own coaches as supportive, but she’s aware that other athletes have suffered under intense pressure to lose weight. “This is beyond coaches,” Diggins says. “A really good life skill is just thinking about how your words might land on someone else.” Here, she advises on phrases to embrace—and avoid.
-“Food is fuel.”
-“Healthy athletes come in all shapes and sizes.”
-“I noticed you really got after it in the workout today. You pushed yourself hard. Great job.”
-Compliment their leadership, teamwork, or hustle
-Commenting on an athlete’s weight or appearance
-Praising or criticizing their food choices
-Linking a lower weight or body fat percentage to success