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Nordic skiing: Diggins an inspiration for boys and girls alike

Saturday’s American Birkebeiner has a special place for the Minnesota skier and her family.

Olympics: Cross-Country Skiing-Womens 30km Freestyle
Minnesotan Jessie Diggins of the United States competes in the women’s cross-country skiing 30-kilometer freestyle during the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games at Zhangjiakou Cross-Country Centre.
Danielle Parhizkaran / USA Today Sports
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DULUTH — American cross-country skiers Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall’s gold-medal victory at PyeongChang in 2018, and Chad Salmela’s epic call, will forever be cemented in U.S. Winter Olympics lore, but it’s hard in the present to know what that will mean for the future of U.S. Nordic skiing.

Closer to home, it’s easily more apparent, and the impact certainly transcends gender.

Diggins, a Minnesota native, is known for wearing glitter, saying it’s a reminder that sports are fun, or at least, supposed to be fun.

Duluth East cross-country coach Bonnie Fuller-Kask said many boys now wear glitter on their faces like Diggins does, perhaps with a little friendly urging from their female teammates.

“We’re all inspired by Jessie,” Fuller-Kask said. “It’s very neat that boys and girls are looking up to Jessie as an athlete to admire.”

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As they should.

Good is good, no matter the gender.

Duluth East, fresh off runner-up finishes for both boys and girls at the Minnesota State High School League meet Feb. 17 at Giants Ridge in Biwabik, is certainly not done for the season, even if the MSHSL is complete.

Lily Brown, brothers Ian and Carl Morse, Oliver Miatke and James Kyes have all qualified for the Midwest Team to compete in the Junior Nationals March 6-12 in Minneapolis.

East also has six girls and three boys expected to compete in the 29-kilometer Kortelopet and one girl in the Prince Haakon 15K as part of the 48th running of the American Birkebeiner Saturday from Cable to Hayward.

Among those, Jenna Johnson, Lydia Kraker, Leah Coleman and Tuuli and Paavo Rova will ski the Korte. Tuuli and Paavo’s dad, Jonathan, just got back from the Swedish Vasaloppet 100-year anniversary special race of 90K.

Diggins, meanwhile, continues to inspire, winning silver in the 30K freestyle and bronze in the individual sprint this month in Beijing.

Diggins, a Minnesota prep phenom, won the Korte freestyle in 2008 and 2009. The entire week holds a special place with her family. Her parents are expected to be at the Birkie on Saturday.

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American Birkebeiner executive director Ben Popp thought it was “fantastic” when hearing some boys have worn glitter in homage of Diggins.

“That’s so great — I love it,” Popp said. “Jessie is so amazing, and it really does inspire us all, it really does. It just gets people fired up by the fact that Jessie and the U.S. Ski Team are winning medals, and they’re just great ambassadors, living great lifestyles. They’re great people, and there’s just no doubt we’re really fortunate to have them in our sport.”

A look at the elites

Popp said earlier this week that it was hard to put a number on how many Olympians will compete Saturday because travel has been difficult, but he said France definitely will have a strong contingent at this year’s Birkie.

Jason Cork agreed. The former Duluthian and World Cup coach expects Rosie Frankowski, (two-time Birkie champion), Alayna Sonnesyn and Caitlin Patterson to break away early and then fight it out for a while.

“It’s a toss-up on who wins,” Cork said. “Caitlin was in China for three weeks, so she has had an altitude block, which might be useful in the Birkie.”

Jessica Yeaton, who won the Birkie women’s freestyle in 2020 but had to settle for the “Virkie” virtual option last winter, is also in the field, as is five-time champion Caitlin Gregg and recent Worldloppet winner Celine Chopard Lallier of France.

Randall is in the field but is more of a sprinter. Either way, it’s cool she comes out to participate and is certainly a great ambassador for the sport. Sadie Bjornsen, Sophie (Caldwell) Hamilton, Liz Stephen, Erik Bjornsen and Simi Hamilton are all former U.S. Ski Team athletes/Olympians.

On the men’s side, Adam Martin and David Norris are standouts while Cork expects Ian Torchia and Finn O’Connell to also be in the mix.

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“The biggest potential spoiler for an American win is Jean-Marc Gaillard (of France),” Cork said. “Another notable entry is Andrew Joda, who is a wax tech for the U.S. Snowboard Cross team, which just had some amazing success in Beijing. He ought to have fast skis.”

The fact this race is even going on, amidst a pandemic, and despite a blizzard earlier this week, is a blessing, Popp said.

“We got really lucky,” he said. “It’s a real testament to the professionalism of our team. We saw that snow coming four or five days before it arrived, so everybody worked 12 hours a day over the weekend, putting in extra time, to get us ahead of schedule. The attitude was ‘let’s get ‘er’ done.’ The world is coming to northern Wisconsin and we’ve got to be ready.”

48TH AMERICAN BIRKEBEINER

What: North America’s largest cross-country ski race

Where: Cable to Hayward

When: 8 a.m. Saturday

Saturday forecast for Hayward: Mostly sunny with a high of 33 and 16 mph wind

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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