As Diggins goes for gold half a world away Saturday, the legion will gather at
As Diggins starts her medal quest at
"It's just amazing. Even people who don't ski like to feel they're a part of it, too," said Simpson, a 37-year coaching veteran who helped build
Volunteers like Hagstrom typify the quiet, behind-the-scenes support Diggins has enjoyed since she took to the sport as a 3-year-old.
For years, blankets have been Hagstrom's thing, something that he has wrapped gently and in proud red-and-black Stillwater Ponies colors around the shoulders of countless local skiers, Diggins included, to keep them warm as they prepared to race. And just as he did when Diggins was on the team, he's always been there at the finish line, ready with a hug of congratulation, or solace.
Diggins, Hagstrom said, was a pugnacious competitor, never giving an inch in a race.
As Stillwater's girls' coach, Hansen also played a key role in Diggins' development, guiding her to three individual state skiing titles. The nurturing environment in which Diggins blossomed, she said, shows in her work ethic, her generosity and her grounded personality.
"Win or lose, at home or abroad, she knows she has a strong base of support," Hansen said.
That extended team includes the coaches who nurtured her physical skills, so apparent even as a child; local business owners like the Chilkoot's
At the waxing shack
In a low-ceilinged shed surrounded by woods in rural Grant, a fire roars in the cast-iron stove of "the ski waxing shack," the pails of popcorn and cookies awaiting the arrival of Stillwater's ski team.
The shack is Hagstrom's old workshop, now converted for the exclusive task of preparing skis for racing. That means applying the right wax to the skis, based on temperature and snow conditions, that keeps them from slipping during a race. It's a critical step, and for the chattering young skiers who start crowding in the shed's warmth, a pre-race ritual -- one Diggins experienced many times. It includes its own "Jessie board" of Diggins photos.
The local Nordic skiing tradition, which Diggins took to as a toddler with her family, runs deep in the area for a couple of reasons, Simpson said.
After a ski shop opened over the
In Stillwater, he added, skiing is a major sport, and skiers are regarded on equal footing as football or basketball stars. There also is a plethora of nearby places to train, including
"There are a lot of people in the St. Croix Valley who really love cross-country skiing, and they want to give that love of the sport to the kids," said Hansen.
It's why so many are willing to sacrifice time and money without a second thought. Officially, Stillwater has three coaches -- Hansen, Simpson and boys coach Torry Krafston. But there are about two dozen volunteer "technical coaches" who also help.
Simpson first encountered Diggins when she was a seventh-grader at
"I saw it immediately," he said of Diggins' unique mix of physical skills and mental toughness.
"I told the other coaches, 'We have someone special here.' She had that attitude from Day One, you know that? She had that positive attitude and just worked so hard."
Taipale saw that, too, when a 12-year-old Diggins was training on roller skis early one morning at
"When I came up to her, I will never forget this, she looked up at me and she said 'You're going to be stuck with me for a long time,'?" Taipale said, of the angelic-looking girl with the tenacious personality.
"I asked her, 'What kind of money are we talking about?' and she said 'At least
Instead, Stylos catered a fundraising dinner that brought in more than
"All I did was open the door, put some food out and said 'Help Jessie,'?" he said. "And they did; they came by the truckload. The passion is out there."
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