If Afton native Jessie Diggins gets to race in Minnesota next weekend, this local nonprofit deserves credit

It’s been more than a decade since Afton native Jessie Diggins has competed in her home state. She’s become an international superstar since leaving Minnesota, famously winning a gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, while continuously proving she’s among the best cross country skiers in the world.

Now the 32-year-old Diggins is on the precipice of her career coming full circle. She is set to compete in the Loppet Cup next weekend at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis. It has been more than 20 years since a World Cup race for cross country skiing has been held in the U.S.

The only issue? The unseasonably warm winter has left the Twin Cities without any snow on the ground.

That has made the past couple of months extremely challenging for the Loppet Foundation and its executive director Claire Wilson. The local nonprofit is in charge of coordinating logistics for the event and is doing everything in its power to preserve the small sliver of snow that currently rests on the trail at Theodore Wirth Park.

“I can’t describe the level of stress the staff and the volunteers have been under,” Wilson said. “I also can’t say enough about how creative and how resilient everybody has been.”

After heavy rain on Christmas washed out virtually all of the snow, Wilson knew it was imperative to take advantage of the polar vortex last month. As most people cooped up indoors during that prolonged stretch of bitter cold, organizers for the Loppet Cup braved the elements outdoors to artificially make as much snow as possible.

“We got very lucky,” Wilson said. “If temperatures are consistently below 28 degrees, we can make a lot of snow very quickly. The challenge this year is that temperatures haven’t been below 28 degrees very often. That little stretch last month saved us.”

With a good amount of snow lining the trail at Theodore Wirth Park, the biggest test for the Loppet Cup came last week when the International Ski and Snowboard Federation inspected the conditions of the course. Though the temperatures in the Twin Cities remained higher than usual, the International Ski and Snowboard Federation gave its approval, and the World Cup race was on.

“Honestly, I cried when they said it,” Wilson said. “To me, (holding a race in) February always felt safe. If we didn’t have snow, we would definitely be able to make it. I thought it would be the least challenging time that we could pick and instead it’s been the most challenging time.”

The last hurdle for the Loppet Cup to clear will come this week. Rain is in the forecast on Thursday afternoon with a high of 50 degrees. The plan is to fortify some areas to slow the melt while simultaneously covering other areas with specialized blankets designed to protect the snow.

If the Loppet Cup can get through the next couple of days relatively unscathed, it should be in pretty good shape heading into next week.

“I’m very confident in our chances to survive the warm up,” Wilson said. “We’re in pretty good shape right now. We’re not giving up. This going to happen.”

Maybe the most impressive part about the Loppet Foundation navigating the past couple of months is the scale of the event relative to the scale of the organization. There aren’t hundreds of people working together at any given moment in time to keep everything on track.

“I’d say it’s about 30 people working very consistently,” Wilson said. “It’s truly a grassroots effort. This is not the Super Bowl Host Committee. These are people that love cross country skiing and want to bring this magic to Minnesota in any way that they can.”

All the hard work isn’t lost on Diggins. It’s allowing her to live out her lifelong dream of bringing a World Cup race to her home state.

“This was the highlight of my whole year and among the things I’ve wanted the most in my whole career,” Diggins said. “The fact that so many people have been working around the clock to make this possible despite some incredibly challenging circumstances is really amazing. I’m so incredibly grateful. I think that will make it even more meaningful when we get a chance to race.”

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