Emily Klemp (right) meets Olympic gold medal winner Jessie Diggins on Monday afternoon. Klemp and dozens of other lucky children and adults met Diggins at Lake Park Lodge for autographs, photos, and a chance to hold a gold medal.
by BEN MCLEOD
Olympian Jessie Diggins, the official ambassador for the upcoming Bob Kierlin Five-Kilometer race (BK5K), dropped by Lake Park Lodge on Monday to meet fans young and old, sign posters, and let aspiring young local athletes feel how heavy a gold medal really is.
Children arrived with copies of a black-and-white image of Diggins, a Minnesota native, in which they had colored. Some of the small fans were very shy, while others saw no reason not to pick up the medal and put it right around their necks. Some parents were more nervous to meet the athlete than their children were.
Diggins is part of a significant chapter in the American Olympic story, one of the two members of the cross-country team sprint duo who brought the U.S. its first-ever gold medal in skiing. It’s no surprise that young Minnesotans were excited to meet the smiling and endlessly gracious Diggins. It’s only natural that smaller athletes could see themselves in the 26-year-old Afton, Minn., native’s ski boots. “When I was three I joined the Minnesota Youth Ski League and there’s where I learned to cross-country ski,” said Diggins. “Then I joined the high school ski team when I was in seventh grade, and I would train with local clubs in the summer to find training buddies to work on technique.”
Diggins came to Winona as part of the lead-up to the BK5K race, the proceeds of which all go to local youth sports organizations. Paul Wisniewski, the director for the BK5K, said, “With Jessie winning the gold, we saw an opportunity. She wanted to come down and help us out so we made her our honorary ambassador.” Even though Diggins is known as a skier, she was excited to support a project aimed at getting children outside and active in many sports. “This is very awesome,” Diggins said. “It supports youth programs like the one that taught me how to ski. I mean, that’s how I got into it, so I’m proud to be an ambassador to an organization that does a lot of give-back and tries to support the community.” While Diggins will be unable to return to Winona for the five-kilometer race, she’s happy to contribute however she can. “With her schedule and training, this was the best opportunity for her to get to Winona to help us,” explained Wisniewski. “She’s a huge supporter of active youth and youth exercise. And with all the proceeds [from the race] going to youth organizations it was great timing for us.” April is Diggins’ one month off from training this year, and she went back to work on May 1. “I still vote here [in Minnesota],” Diggins said, “but I’m on the road 10 months out of the year. It’s been a really busy spring, because my time has been in higher demand than in previous years. But it’s a really good thing to share the medal, and to see so many people inspired. The ripple effect of this medal is really inspiring. People get fired up to go walking, run, hike, ski, sign up for local youth programs. I think that’s really cool.”
Winona youth agreed. Winona Senior High’s ski coach Jacob Teichroew stood off to one side, watching one of his students clasp the gold medal in her hands. “That’s my number-one skier, Anni Skillicorn, All-American skier, All State, and she won section championships. So that’s your present gold-medal winner and your future medal winner.” Teichroew has been a fan of Diggins for a while. “She’s done practice with us a couple of times in the past, but that was before she was a gold-medal winner,” he said. “A lot of our young girls are hyped, and looking forward to continuing to succeed. But seeing something like this is always great. A gold medal isn’t just, ‘OK, we go to state, oh whatever.’ Which is still great. But there is an opportunity beyond that if you really put in the effort, which is what Jessie put in. Hard work; that’s the only way you can do it.”
Diggins was excited to meet her smallest fans and her older ones; she signed so many posters that she ran out. And occasionally, when small hands couldn’t heft the weight of a gold medal and let it ring loudly against the concrete floor of the Lake Park Lodge, she laughed it off. It seems likely that there will be more gold in her future, and she was unambiguous about how she got to where she is today. “It was very much a community effort that raised me and taught me how to ski.”
The BK5K will take place during Steamboat Days, on June 16. Registration is now open and details are available on the website, bk5k.com. Proceeds will go towards area youth programs.