'The only thing I wanted.' Jessie Diggins turns Olympic gold into a hometown race

In the days after Jessie Diggins won an Olympic gold medal in 2018, her agent explained one of the perks of Winter Games fame. That hard-earned hardware wasn't just a historic achievement for American cross-country skiing. It doubled as a winning lottery ticket, ready to be cashed in for anything Diggins desired.

Patrick Quinn tossed out some possibilities to his client. Maybe a trip to Disney World? Perhaps a car?

"I said, 'I want a World Cup in Minneapolis,'" Diggins recalled. "And he was like, 'Oooooh. That's a big ask.' But really, that was the only thing I wanted.''

Seven months after that 2018 milestone, Diggins was granted the wish. After a four-year wait caused by COVID-19, the Afton native will finally ski in a homegrown World Cup, in this weekend's sprint and 10-kilometer races at Theodore Wirth Park.

The Loppet Cup is the first World Cup cross-country event in the U.S. since 2001, and the first ever in Minnesota. It's expected to draw 30,000 spectators from all 50 states. Like the gold Diggins won with Kikkan Randall at the Pyeongchang Olympics, it was built on teamwork, persistence and guts.

Diggins began lobbying in 2011 for a World Cup race on home snow. After U.S. Ski & Snowboard and the Loppet Foundation got on board, her Winter Games medal in the team sprint pushed the project over the finish line. The races were scheduled for March 2020, but the pandemic put Diggins' quest on hold.

The Loppet Foundation, the Minneapolis nonprofit that is hosting the World Cup, suffered significant financial losses when the event was canceled as COVID-19 shut down the world. That raised questions about whether the foundation would have the resources or desire to mount another bid.

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Executive director Claire Wilson and the group's board didn't take long to decide.

"People really wanted this to happen,'' she said. "It was Jessie's dream, and it was important for the sport. So we stepped up.''

The Loppet Foundation made good use of the four extra years to prepare. It secured sponsors to cover nearly all of the event's $3.5 million cost. The group also gained a co-host in Share Winter, an outdoor sports advocacy group, which kicked in funding to make general admission tickets free.

It's already been an unforgettable season for Diggins, who has won five World Cup races to build a wide lead in the tour's overall standings. Still, she expects this weekend to be a highlight — maybe the highlight — of her years on ski racing's top professional circuit.

"It almost doesn't feel real," she said. "This is something I've wanted for my entire career, something I asked for for so long. And it's finally happening."

'Why don't we have this?'

The vast majority of World Cup races are held in Europe, with the occasional foray into Canada. The last U.S. event was 23 years ago in Soldier Hollow, Utah, a test run for the 2002 Olympics.

Diggins joined the World Cup tour in 2011 at age 19 and vividly recalls her debut in Drammen, Norway. Awed by the giant outdoor party with a ski race at the center, she thought a similar event would be a big hit in America.

"There were thousands of people there,'' Diggins said. "Everything was stunning: the lights, the crowd, the drunken fans. It was electric. I looked around and thought, 'This is amazing. Why don't we have this at home?'"

The short answer: Money. In Europe and Canada, governments subsidize the cost of staging a World Cup race. When the Loppet Foundation began exploring the idea in 2017, officials estimated it would have to raise at least $1.5 million.

The first step, though, was proving Wirth Park was up to the task. U.S. Ski & Snowboard had kicked around the idea of hosting a World Cup event at an attention-grabbing spot like Boston's Fenway Park or Central Park in New York City. Wirth Park already had snowmaking equipment, a course approved for national and international races, and an experienced volunteer corps; a new building, The Trailhead, was in the works.

The Loppet Foundation, then led by John Munger, soon convinced U.S. Ski & Snowboard that Minneapolis was the right venue. To move forward, they still needed a spark — which came on that February night in 2018, when Diggins thrust out her ski at the finish line to bring America its first Olympic gold in cross-country skiing.

"When we started looking at whether we could realistically do it, we didn't know where the money was going to come from," Munger said in 2020. "But we all thought it was too great of an opportunity to pass up. So we jumped off the cliff and hoped there was a parachute."

Diggins leapt with them. She came home for a long weekend in April 2018 to pitch the benefits of a World Cup to Twin Cities corporate executives, political leaders and civic boosters, hoping to raise the necessary funds.

For 10 to 12 hours each day, Diggins darted from breakfast meetings to luncheons to boardrooms to the State Capitol, wooing supporters with her gold medal. A month later, even though the 2019-20 World Cup schedule was already full, the International Ski Federation added a day of sprint racing at Wirth Park.

Finally getting it done

The budget for the 2020 World Cup eventually rose to $2.6 million. At the time, Munger said the financial commitment was "a huge risk for the organization," but the Loppet Foundation believed the boost the sport would get in the U.S. was worth the cost.

The races were scheduled for March 17. As finishing touches were being put on the temporary grandstand and Wirth Park readied for the international spotlight, concerns about COVID-19 began spilling into sports. Norway's athletes said they would not travel to the U.S., and leagues began canceling games.

On March 12, the World Cup was called off. Given the amount of money and work that went for naught, Diggins briefly worried that Minneapolis's moment had passed.

After internal discussions, the Loppet Foundation decided to try again, convinced a World Cup still aligned with its mission to build community through outdoor activities. The popularity of The Trailhead and a growing menu of programs restored the foundation's financial stability, setting the stage for a second successful bid.

"People were devastated by the cancellation," said Wilson, who became executive director in 2021. "Some members did express concerns [about another bid]. But the feeling was, we had gotten so close. We knew how to do this. And we want the world to know what we do here at Wirth."

U.S. Ski & Snowboard was in, too. Chief executive Sophie Goldschmidt said there was "no question" the organization would team up with the Loppet Foundation.

"The community is special and has such a passion for the sport," she said. "It makes sense to have the event at Wirth."

Wilson said that in 2020, the Loppet Foundation was surprised at the enthusiasm surrounding the World Cup's return to America. The second time around, she described the excitement as "off the charts,'' with all general admission tickets snapped up in less than 24 hours.

Diggins can relate. For 13 years, she's wanted to share the amped-up atmosphere of a World Cup race with her fellow Americans. She guaranteed they will feel goosebumps this weekend, and so will she.

"It just makes me so happy," Diggins said. "This is something I desperately wanted before I retire. When I'm done with the sport, I think I can leave it in peace, knowing that we finally got this done."