Anyone who has watched Jessie Diggins ski in a cross-country race understands her truths. She has an unmatched willingness to push her body in the name of competition. No pain is too overwhelming that it can’t be nudged aside. Exhaustion is an idea that exists only past the finish line, not on the course. And through all the punishment, all the misery, there is pure, unfiltered joy.
“I always wanted to be a professional skier, and I’m literally getting to live my dream job,” Diggins said. “And I love my team. I got to marry the love of my life. My parents are wonderful. My little sister is hysterically funny and amazing. I love my in-laws. And so I feel like, ‘Who am I not to be happy?’ "
Yet contradicting qualities can exist in the same person. Happy people can - and do - struggle. A dozen years ago, as a teenager, Diggins battled an eating disorder, bulimia nervosa. In the years since - years in which she became a professional skier, won three Olympic medals and became the first American woman to take the season-long World Cup overall championship, perhaps the most coveted title in the sport - she excelled as a spokesperson for awareness around eating disorders and as a competitor. She was a picture of athletic strength and an eloquent advocate for a condition that afflicts tens of millions of Americans.
“I think I had kind of secretly hoped, like, ‘I’ll never have to deal with this again,’ " she said.
Until she did. Diggins is here to say that eating disorders don’t come in one shape and one size, nor does her individual story fit anyone else’s exactly. The common thread, though: They must be dealt with. The sooner the better.
So this summer - unexpectedly for anyone who watches her from the outside, unsurprisingly for people who understand how hard-wired these illnesses can be - Diggins found herself again struggling with bulimia. The disorder can creep up in people who become obsessed with their weight and body image, who may binge-eat only to purge. It is dangerous.
When Diggins is immersed in her sport, particularly when she is racing with her U.S. teammates in relays, she has built-in accountability, and she has learned to stave off damaging behavior. She is a self-identified perfectionist, and if there’s a race coming up, it is both her nature and her job to put everything into preparation. Bulimia can’t be part of that, so for 12 years, she had kept it at bay.
But it doesn’t go away. Not completely, at least.
“I think having this come up in the summer, it’s kind of in hindsight, like, ‘Oh, yeah, I didn’t have anyone else’s race to help prepare for,’ " Diggins said over Zoom last week. “And so there was slightly less motivation to just do this for myself. And to be honest, I think this has been coming for a long time. I think over the past couple of years I’ve kind of forgotten how to let go of trying to be perfect. And I’ve been putting more and more pressure on myself and expecting more and more from myself.”
This is, she wants to make clear, no one’s fault. And it’s instructive, in navigating a path forward, to look back to where she has been. Growing up in Minnesota, Diggins, she now understands, was a classic Type A personality. If there was a task - in academics, in athletics, in pleasing anybody - she wanted to be perfect at it. Not good at math? Fine. Buckle down and get good at it.
“Those qualities suit me very well in terms of cross-country skiing, right?” she said. “Like, this is a sport that demands that you have to work hard. You have to show up. You have to be dedicated. You have to be able to push your body, and you have to be able to give 100 percent when you race.
“However, those same qualities, when seen through the lens of an eating disorder, can be incredibly destructive.”
When she was 18 and bulimia entered her life, she had little more than a high school health class pamphlet’s worth of understanding of her behavior.
“I was struggling with deeper emotions of sadness, fear, anger,” she said. “I thought it was not okay for me to be upset. I had to learn that it is okay for me to feel those emotions and that using the symptoms of my eating disorder was a tool that I was using to feel nothing.”
What Diggins had done over the previous decade-plus was fill her toolbox with other tools. She worked with a sports psychologist. She enrolled in the Emily Program, which helps eating disorder patients with treatment in the moment but also prepares them for a lifetime of recovery. She promoted the National Eating Disorders Association. She had structure. When family and friends couldn’t travel to the 2022 Olympics in Beijing because of the coronavirus pandemic, she FaceTimed her husband in the morning and the evening, a method to talk the pressure away.
So she was fine. Until she wasn’t. Over the summer, she found her brain going back to its old ways. It scared her.
“I got to a point where it was like: ‘I can’t do this. This is not sustainable. I can’t live like this through the next Olympic cycle, let alone just this next year,’ " she said. “So I needed to reset. I needed to take a step back and go: ‘Oh, my God. This is not okay. I would never ask anyone else to do what I’m doing, so why am I asking this of myself?’ "
The 18-year-old Diggins didn’t know how to handle her situation. The 32-year-old Diggins does.
“I know myself, and I know my history, and I know that I have the intensity within me that means I could spiral very, very quickly,” she said. “. . . We know that the longer you wait to receive help, the harder it is. There is no ‘sick enough.’ Don’t wait.”
She didn’t wait. And because of that, when the World Cup season begins next month in Ruka, Finland, Diggins expects to be there. That did not seem probable in August, when she was really struggling, or in September, when she posted on Instagram - where she has more than 200,000 followers - that she was battling her old foe again.
Since, she has returned to training. She has leaned on her support team, for which she is incredibly thankful. And for someone who has Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals - who won the first gold for an American in an individual race at the world championships just this past February - she is not focused on results.
What she is focused on: staying in recovery. Actually, more than that: helping others get there, too.
“This is so important to me because it’s not just my story, right?” she said. “It’s the next me. I want the next person who’s in my shoes to hopefully have a smoother experience through everyone having a little more knowledge and compassion and understanding.”
Over Zoom, she smiled. She should. Jessie Diggins is a remarkable athlete who has accomplished feats no American ever had. The impact that has made on the world is nothing compared to her frankness, her public vulnerability. Celebrate her as an athlete and competitor, because she is so worthy. But celebrate her humanity, because it matters more.