Nordic Skiing bonds friendship, fuels competition of Diggins, Hart
Posted: Tuesday, February 1, 2022 - 6:53 PM
Before Stillwater Area High School’s Jessie Diggins became a worldwide Olympic sensation in Nordic Skiing, she and St. Paul Academy’s Annie Hart were two of the most dynamic competitors in Minnesota State High School League competitions. In 2010, leading up to what was expected to be a dandy duel between the friends, the St. Paul Pioneer Press previewed their final high school race and then captured the most dazzling, heart-stopping finish in Nordic Skiing. Both would become teammates on the U.S. Olympic Nordic Skiing Team. Stories and photos courtesy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Feb. 10, 2010
Stillwater’s Jessie Diggins and St. Paul Academy’s Annie Hart are not expected to give each other a cold stare when they line up for Thursday’s state Nordic ski meet.
Diggins and Hart are more likely to hug each other in the starting area. People looking for discord between the state’s top two Nordic performers over the past three years will have to search elsewhere.
Diggins admires Hart, the defending state champion, and Hart feels the same about Diggins, who won the state title in 2007 and 2008.
“We’re good friends,” Diggins said. “When we compete against each other, we both know it comes down to who skis better or faster. It’s not like we’ll be mad at each other after a race. People think there’s this huge rivalry between us. As far as I’m concerned, there is no rivalry.”
Thursday’s meet at Giants Ridge in Biwabik, Minn., represents the final high school battle between the two seniors. Diggins’ state title streak was interrupted last year when she missed the Section 4 meet to compete in the World Junior Championships in France. The event was two weeks earlier this year in Germany, giving Diggins a chance to lead Stillwater to a four-point win over Roseville for the Section 4 title.
Diggins has an opportunity to close out her career with another state championship, but her close friend is in the way. Hart insists the outcome won’t affect their friendship.
“Nobody goes into a race or anything hoping to finish second, but if Jessie wins, I’m OK with that,” Hart said. “She’s beaten me and I’ve beaten her in other events. It’ll be a fun time out there no matter who wins.”
Hart and Diggins are members of the U.S. Junior Ski team. They traveled on the same flights to and from Germany last month for the World Junior Championships. The two-week stay helped their friendship grow.
“We had such a blast in Germany,” Hart said. “Jessie’s a really fun person. It’s nice to know someone who’s an exceptional athlete and has a great personality to go with it.”
Diggins and Hart last faced each other on the same course in Biwabik in the Giants Ridge Invitational on Jan. 9. Diggins defeated Hart by 9.3 seconds in the classic individual event. Both tuned up with impressive displays in their sectional meets to advance to the state competition.
Diggins posted a combined time of 30 minutes, 43 seconds in the classic 5K (16:10) and freestyle 5K (14:33). Hart dominated the Section 3 meet with a combined time of 33:34 (17:36 classic, 15:58 freestyle). Both kept regular practice schedules after their section victories, and they saw each other Friday while training at Battle Creek.
“Both girls are such exceptional skiers,” Stillwater coach Kris Hansen said. “To people outside the Nordic community, there’s a rivalry. To us, they’re just fast skiers and great individuals.”
Beyond high school, Diggins and Hart appear to be heading in different directions. Hart has a scholarship to attend Dartmouth, which has an NCAA Division I program in Nordic skiing. Diggins has been accepted at Northern Michigan, but she’s unsure if she wants to go to college. She is considering training and competing full time after graduation in June.
“I know I need an education, but I’m thinking about taking the next year off from school,” Diggins said. “I’m tired of missing school and playing catch-up all the time with my homework. I need a year off from the added stress.”
Diggins is eyeing a possible berth on the U.S. Olympic team in 2014. Hart also has Olympic visions, but she’s placing a higher priority on college.
“I love skiing, but I’m ready for the next step in my life,” Hart said. “I’m not expecting a huge change in perspective for me because this is my last high school event.”
Feb. 11, 2010
BIWABIK, Minn. — They were neck and neck in the final kilometer in what might be remembered as the greatest and closest finish in Minnesota prep Nordic skiing history. Two champions, finishing their prep careers at Giants Ridge on Thursday afternoon in breathtaking fashion.
It was suggested that maybe close friends and competitors Jessie Diggins of Stillwater and St. Paul Academy’s Annie Hart had a secret pact that they would cross the finish line together.
“That would have been sweet,” Hart said.
“Crossing the line holding hands would have been kind of cool,” Diggins added. “But a race is a race. You don’t race so that you can skip across the finish line. You race so that you can blow your guts out.”
Diggins used a powerful double pole in the final 50 meters to catch Hart and capture her third individual state championship in the past four years. Diggins had a two-race combined time of 31:28.5, just seven-tenths of a second faster than Hart, last season’s champion.
Diggins’ electrifying finish also lifted the Ponies to the team championship. Stillwater won the team title for the second time in the past three seasons with 382 points, 23 more than runner-up Wayzata.
“This is such a great way to go out,” Diggins said. “To win it this way, and to win a team title, is pretty much indescribable. I am super-excited about winning it as a team.”
Diggins had just more than a 15-second head start for the afternoon’s 5-kilometer classical race on the strength of her performance in the morning’s 5K freestyle. She had a time of 15:36 in the freestyle, and Hart was second at 15:51.2.
But Diggins’ lead evaporated in the first three kilometers of a tough course that is accentuated with climbs.
“I tried not to dwell too much on the deficit,” Hart said. “Fifteen seconds against a great skier like her is not a piece of cake. I was skiing hard, but I didn’t feel like I was making up any time. Apparently, by the screaming of fans on the course, I was catching her.”
Diggins figured that out, too.
“I had people on the course cheering for me, and then almost instantly, I was hearing people cheering for Annie,” Diggins said. “That told me she was close.”
With less than a kilometer remaining, Hart caught Diggins and surged into a lead going down a hill. But Diggins dug deep and found another gear with less than 50 meters remaining.
“In the last 100 yards of a race, I usually have something left,” Diggins said. “I just hoped I had enough room to finish this one. The last two times I’ve raced here, it wasn’t even close. This time, it was great to race, sprint and lunge across the line. It was cool.
“If the race had finished back on that hill, it would have been a totally different story. I am primarily a chaser. I like to chase people down. Being the one chased, knowing they are coming at you, can be kind of scary.”
Hart, who shared a hug with Diggins seconds after the finish, actually had the faster time in the classical with 15:38 to 15:52.5 for Diggins.
“She was just stronger and better than I was,” Hart said. “I don’t think by any means this was a disappointing race for either of us.”
Diggins and Hart leave March 4 for the Junior Olympics in Maine.
Also scoring for Stillwater in the team championship were Nora Gilbertson, Emily Olson and Leah Ranta.
“Jessie is as tough as they come because of her athletic ability,” said Stillwater coach Kris Hansen, a two-time state champion in 1985 and ’86. “The girls did phenomenally. They pulled together to win this championship.”