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Skier Jessie Diggins becomes first American to win an individual world title

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

You've heard of downhill skier Mikaela Shiffrin, but there's another American woman atop the podium at the highest levels of skiing this week, this time on the cross-country trails. In Slovenia today, Jessie Diggins became the first ever American cross-country skier, man or woman, to win a gold medal at an individual race at the World Championships. As Nat Herz reports, the victory came at one of the sport's most challenging events - a race against the clock.

NAT HERZ, BYLINE: If you've ever been cross-country skiing, you know that it's a full-body workout. And the American Olympian Jessie Diggins is famous for pushing herself harder than just about any of her rivals. Just listen as she tries to catch her breath after collapsing across the finish line in today's event at the World Championships.

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JESSIE DIGGINS: (Panting).

HERZ: Cross-country skiing's individual start race sends athletes out on the trail alone one at a time every 30 seconds. It's a test of just how hard they can push themselves. Go all out too soon and risk running out of steam. Slovenia's leg-breaking hills require the women to climb exactly the height of the Empire State Building over the course of six miles. And Diggins, en route to a postrace news conference, says she prepared by visualizing how she would handle the pain.

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DIGGINS: I had been really nervous for a long time just knowing, like, this is my chance to dig deeper than I have ever done before. And more than anything, I just wanted to leave it all out there.

HERZ: Diggins already has a gold, silver and bronze from the past two Winter Olympics, but neither she nor any other American had ever won an individual race at the World Championships. Swedes and Norwegians have dominated all the other events here to the point that even some Scandinavian fans say they're happy to see anyone from somewhere else win a race. Diggins' bubbly attitude has also inspired admiration from her competitors, like Finland's Jasmi Joenssu.

JASMI JOENSSU: Yeah, she's great. And I really enjoy that someone else wins than Swedish girls. I'm really happy for her.

HERZ: Diggins joined with another American here, Julia Kern, to win bronze in the team sprint event earlier this week. Those results, along with some up-and-coming athletes who train with Diggins, now have the U.S. squad dreaming of getting its first-ever medal in Thursday's four-leg relay. Here's one of the coaches, Chris Grover.

CHRIS GROVER: We have the talent in the group. If we put the skis together and we can put together the right order and those four women end up having, like, a good day, who knows what can happen?

HERZ: One thing boosting the Americans' odds - the traditionally strong Russian team is stuck at home. Its athletes were banned after the country launched its war on Ukraine. For NPR News, I'm Nat Herz in Planica, Slovenia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.