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Gold medalist kicks off Nordic Center's first year

Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins leads children in a stretch during an exercise session Spirit Mountain’s Grand Avenue Chalet Sunday. The afternoon event was the first of two supporting the Grand Avenue Nordic Center the Minnesota native took part in Sunday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 4
Jessie Diggins raises both arms in greeting before speaking to Sunday’s crowd at Spirit Mountain’s Grand Avenue Chalet. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 4
Jessie Diggins hugs her grandmother Betty Santa of Pike Lake at Spirit Mountain’s Grand Avenue Chalet on Sunday. Diggins, who skied in the Duluth area growing up, and teammate Kikkan Randall became the first Americans to win an Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing earlier this year. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 4
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 and her relay teammate Kikkan Randall won the United States' first Olympic gold medal in cross country ever and first medal since 1976 during 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Submitted photo) 4 / 4

Speaking to a crowd gathered at the Grand Avenue Nordic Ski Center at the bottom of Spirit Mountain on Sunday afternoon, Jessie Diggins, a Minnesota native and Olympic gold medalist in cross-country skiing, urged young skiers in the crowd to always give 100 percent.

Diggins' grandmother, Betty Santa of Duluth, stood near the front of the chalet wearing tall red and blue socks with white stripes, the same style worn by the U.S. Women's Cross-Country Ski Team during relays.

Asked what it was like seeing hundreds of people in attendance to see her granddaughter speak, Santa choked up and held back tears.

"For all her accomplishments, she's just a wonderful person," Santa said "And she's done so many good things."

Since winning the gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Diggins has publicly discussed the eating disorder she battled after graduating from high school. On Saturday, Diggins spoke at the 25th anniversary of the Emily Program, the eating-disorder treatment center that Diggins turned to for help.

Diggins has also advocated for meaningful action to curb climate change. Without snow, after all, there'd be no cross-country skiing.

For Santa, seeing Diggins use her public platform to discuss eating disorders and the environment makes her proud.

"She's doing a lot of great things and I'm just proud of her for that," Santa said.

Although Diggins grew up in Afton, Minn., and graduated from Stillwater Area Public School, Diggins has deep connections to the Northland as her grandmother still lives on Pike Lake

Her mother, Deb Diggins — then Deb Robinet — grew up on Pike Lake and is a graduate of Proctor High School. And 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.

On Sunday, Diggins described a photo she still has of her grandparents and dad, Clay Diggins, skiing across Pike Lake as she hitched a ride in her dad's backpack.

Clif Santa, Betty Santa and Clay Diggins ski across Pike Lake as  a 1-year-old Jessie Diggins hitches a ride.

As Diggins learned to ski herself, the family would ski together at Snowflake Nordic Ski Center in Duluth and, years later, Diggins won her first high school section race there.

Beyond her familial connections to the region, Duluth is home to Chad Salmela, the NBC Commentator who screamed "Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins!" as she passed Stina Nilsson of Sweden on the final stretch and "Yes! Yes! Yes!" when it was clear she'd be the first U.S. gold medalist in cross-country skiing and first medal since 1976.

The two have known each other since Salmela coached Diggins when she was 15 and on her first Junior National team.

"Having him get to make the call on that race was just like such a full-circle moment," Diggins told the News Tribune before Sunday's event. "Here's a Minnesotan who's making the call for another Minnesotan and that was really, really special."

Salmela, the cross-country coach at the College of St. Scholastica and the school's former Nordic ski coach, served as the event's emcee Sunday, and the video of Diggins' gold medal finish with Salmela's call played on a nearby screen as he walked to the podium. The crowd inside the chalet cheered as his voice in the video reacted to Diggins crossing the finish line.

"We're not terribly close, but I think we both know this serendipitous thing happened and we're linked," Salmela said of Diggins Sunday. "I always say she's stuck with me. She didn't ask for me to be the guy who made the call, but we're stuck with it."

Salmela will again announce cross-country ski races for the Olympic Channel and NBC Sports Network this year.

Grand Avenue Nordic Center set to make snow

Diggins' appearance in Duluth Sunday helped kick off what will be the Grand Avenue Nordic Center's first year.

After several months of cutting and shaping a 2.5-kilometer loop through the woods below Spirit Mountain with snow-making capabilities and enough room for both skate and classic styles of cross-country skiing, the project's first phase is nearing completion.

Additional trails and lighting along the trail will be added in phase two.

Once complete, the project is expected to offer 5 kilometers of cross-country skiing, with 3.3 kilometers of that served by snow-making equipment to extend the local season and a fully lit trail. The other 1.7 kilometers will link the Grand Avenue Nordic Center trails at the bottom of Spirit Mountain with the existing 20-kilometer trail network on top.

For Diggins, who dealt with plenty of low-snow Minnesota ski seasons, the Nordic Center's ability to make snow offers the sport a solution to climate change.

"I would have died for something like this in high school," said Diggins.

The first phase will be funded by $1 million from the city of Duluth, $750,000 from the Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club and $150,000 of federal grant funding. But the club still needs to raise $250,000 by March to fully fund the entire first phase.

Jimmy Lovrien

Jimmy Lovrien is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. He spent the summer of 2015 as an intern for the Duluth News Tribune and was hired full time in October 2017 as a reporter for the Weekly Observer. He also reported for the Lake County News-Chronicle in 2017-18. Lovrien grew up in Alexandria, Minn., but moved to Duluth in 2013 to attend The College of St. Scholastica. Lovrien graduated from St. Scholastica in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in English and history. He also spent a summer studying journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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