AFTON, Minn. - Afton native Jessie Diggins still has the weathered scrap of cardboard that her idol Kikkan Randall signed for her nearly a decade ago.

Back then, Diggins was a wide-eyed teenager with goals of someday competing in the Olympics, while Randall was a budding star on the U.S. women's cross country ski team blazing a trail for future generations to follow.

Neither expected during that chance meeting at an event in Anchorage, Alaska, what awaited them.

Diggins and Randall made history on Wednesday night, Feb. 21, at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, capturing the gold medal in the Nordic team sprint, the first medal of any kind for the U.S. women's cross country ski team.

Diggins anchored the last leg of the race, overtaking Stina Nilsson of Sweden in the final turn with an epic sprint that culminated with a lunge across the finish line.

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"I wanted it so bad," Diggins told the Pioneer Press by phone. "Nothing was going to stop me. Nothing was going to slow me down in that moment."

Diggins let out a monstrous roar as the race concluded before collapsing into the snow in exhaustion. Fittingly, Randall was the first person to greet her and they shared a picturesque moment that could live on as a turning point for the U.S. women's cross country ski team.

"It really was a full-circle moment for me," Diggins said. "I looked up to her as a kid, and we've gotten to know each other really well over the years. To be able to do that with her, it couldn't have been more perfect."

As the 35-year-old Randall tagged the-26-year-old Diggins on the last leg of the race, it was almost as if she was handing the reins to the new face of U.S. Nordic skiing.

After years of Randall clearing the way, the time has come for Diggins to step up and do the same.

Photo finish

Before her daughter made history, Deb Diggins and the rest of the family in attendance were busy finessing their way into better position to watch the race.

"We positioned ourselves right in front of the finish line, which wasn't our actual seats," Deb Diggins said with a laugh. "We just kind of grouped together and went down there and completely ignored our seat numbers and the other people were actually really nice about it. We ended up with a great vantage point.

"We were facing the jumbo-tron, so we could see all the action when they weren't in front of us. And we were right there watching them come down that final straightaway."

There was no better place to be.

As Diggins battled for position at the final turn, there was some apprehension from her family as to whether she'd be able to outlast her two closest competitors. That quickly faded away as Diggins started her final kick.

"We were like, 'OK. Here it comes,' " Deb Diggins said. "We have see her do it a million times. She has that ability to pull out the stops."

More than 6,000 miles away, Jessie's high school coach, Kris Hanson, was watching with her family and thinking the same thing. Everyone in her household knew the race was over as soon as they saw her pull even on the final stretch.

"I've just seen her do that so many times," Hanson said, thinking back to when Diggins was competing for Stillwater High School in her final state meet. "I remember Annie Hart (of St. Paul Academy) swung into that final straightaway ahead of her and Jessie started sprinting and the crowd was going crazy and I was really confident that she was going to win. And she did.

"She did it back then. She did it last year at the World Championships. She did it at the Olympics. That's just what Jessie does."

After the race, Diggins was almost immediately whisked away for media appearances. She got to hug her family and snap a few photos before talking to strangers for the rest of the night.

"We were prepared that she was going to be pulled away pretty quickly," her mother said. "We saw her briefly and then we didn't see her again that night. We kind of expected that. It was definitely a good problem to have because it meant she won."

Trail blazers

Diggins described the past few days as a whirlwind. She did so many media appearances in the 48 hours after the race that she actually lost her voice.

"Well, I lose my voice really easily," Diggins said with a laugh. "It's not that big of a deal."

While the magnitude of what she helped accomplish still hasn't completely hit her, Diggins said she did start to realize the impact at the medal ceremony on Thursday night.

"That was when I felt like, 'OK. We really get to keep these medals. That really happened,' " Diggins said. "I wasn't ready for how emotional it was going to be seeing our flag raised. It's literally never happened before. That was pretty cool to think about.

"Then I heard Kikkan kind of sniffling next to me trying not to cry and that made me have to try really hard not to cry. It was the moment everything starts to sink in."

It made it even better that her mother and boyfriend, Wade Poplawski, were in the crowd. While most of her family had to return home after the race, those two hurriedly changed their tickets so they could be in attendance at the medal ceremony.

"It's kind of funny because even though I always had in mind that the team sprint was one of their best medal opportunities, we didn't realize that the medal ceremony was going to be the next day," Deb Diggins said. "All of a sudden, she had won the gold medal and we were like, 'Oh no. We are going to miss the medal ceremony.'

"We made the changes and the Olympic Committee offered to help out so we could be there."

As Diggins stood up on the podium, she hoped that moment would serve as an inspiration to young skiers watching from afar, tangible proof that the U.S. can compete with anyone in the world.

"It was definitely weighing on her," Deb Diggins said. "It was different for her because at the last Olympics there were zero expectations for her. She was expected to be reasonably competitive; that was it. That really changed this time around."

"I think that whole U.S. women's cross country ski team has been carrying that weight around for so long," Hanson added. "It seems like the only thing anybody talked about was them not winning any (Olympic) medals. I think it's great they were able to get that monkey off their back and say, 'We have done that. Let's stop talking about it now.' That could go along way for the future of the sport."

With Diggins leading the charge.

Lasting legacy

Diggins was walking through security at the Olympic Village this week when she was stopped in her tracks by a security guard.

"She started patting me down and asked if I had a camera in my pocket or something," Diggins said with a laugh. "I'm like, 'No it's a medal. Don't worry about it.' "

Diggins doesn't like to show off, so instead of wearing her gold medal around her neck, she has been keeping it safe in one of her pockets.

"It's kind of surreal walking around with this thing in my pocket," Diggins said. "It's actually a lot heavier than I thought it was going to be."

Not heavier than the weight on her shoulders as the new leader of the U.S. women's cross country ski team. While there are a lot of talented skiers on the roster, Diggins is undoubtedly the face of the team, especially with Randall in line to retire after the Olympics ends.

"I think everyone was beyond thrilled that it ended up this way," Deb Diggins said. "Kikkan is the person that brought this sport up to a whole different level. She was the the foundation, so for her to be a part of that gold medal had everyone in tears."

Hanson called it a storybook ending for Randall, who started her career at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.

"It's poetic," Hanson said. "Kikkan did so much for the U.S. women's ski team and having them understand that they had the ability to compete at the highest level. So, for Jessie to take that torch and help bring the U.S. women's ski team to a new level is amazing, especially considering they were together to do it. You can't script it any better. It's a beautiful send off for her and a launching pad to the younger generation."

As for Diggins, she doesn't look at herself as the face of anything. She's just hoping to inspire the next generation and take the U.S. to the next level. She has one more race at these Games - a mass start at 12:15 a.m. Sunday - but already has achieved her primary goal, and on Friday was chosen to carry the U.S. flag for the closing ceremonies.

"All the girls on the team, they feel like sisters to me," Diggins said. "It was amazing to have everyone together in that moment. To be able to share this with them, it's so much more special than an individual medal would ever be."