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From Diggins' inspiration to a big pandemic bump, here's the story behind the explosive growth of cross-country skiing in MN

Enrollments (and waitlists) have grown exponentially for kids cross-country skiing. That's just the beginning.

MINNEAPOLIS — To say that Minnesotans' interest in cross-country skiing has shot up in recent years, doesn't quite capture the level of enthusiasm on display across the state.

"It's exploded," said Britt Guild, head coach for the Minnehaha Academy Cross Country team.

Guild spoke to KARE11 about the growth of the sport during the Minnesota Section 3 tournament at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis earlier this week. She said all you had to do was look around at the crowded — and rowdy race course — to see what she was talking about.

"You can hear it and feel it, and it's incredible," she said. "From 6th grade to 12th grade, about four or five years ago, I had 20 kids on the team and now I have 90." 

Claire Wilson, Executive Director of the Loppet Foundation, agreed that the tournament was one of the best ways to understand how the sport has grown in the last few years.

"There's been an explosion of interest," Wilson said. "Particularly in competitive skiing."

Wilson says the origin of this big bang was thanks to Minnesota native Jessie Diggins' historic gold medal finish seen around the world during the 2018 Olympics, in which she propelled the USA relay team to the top of the Olympic podium for the first time ever.

Ever since, Diggins and her trademark glitter face paint, have been a staple at meets across Minnesota, and across the sport. 

"It's the success of Jessie Diggins, especially among young girls," Wilson said. "I mean, when you're out here right now, even with high school racers, the girls have glitter on their cheeks. That is the Jessie Diggins effect." 

And Diggins' impact on the sport is much more than just skin deep.

"Her whole attitude and approach to the sport is so positive and inclusive that it's inspired so many kids," Guild said. "Boys included."

RELATED: How to watch Minnesota's own Jessie Diggins at the Winter Olympics

St. Paul Central junior Maeve Lindsay can't argue with that.

"It's definitely got a lot of people interested in the sport," Lindsay said. "A lot of classmates didn't even used to know what Nordic skiing even was."

Of course that interest picked up speed even more during the pandemic, as everyone searched for safe ways to exercise outdoors.

And school competitions are just the tip of the ski.

"I'm also a part of the Minnesota Youth Ski League as well," Guild said. "A couple years ago, we had maybe a hundred kids skiing at Hiawatha Golf Course. Now, we have 400 kids."

In all, the Minnesota Youth Ski League now has more than 4,000 kids ages 4-14 enrolled. That is double the enrollment four years ago.

The Loppet Foundation has seen a similar surge among the youngest participants.

"Our trail kids programming, which is teaching elementary-age to middle school youth skiing, now has more kids on the waitlist than we do in the program," Wilson said. "I mean the demand is off the charts."

The surge in demand can also be tracked more broadly.

Wilson says Minneapolis cross-country ski pass sales have doubled in just the last two years.

"I just checked the numbers and we were just over 10,000 annual ski passes," she said. "And that is just for the City of Minneapolis. It also doesn't include daily passes."

RELATED: Team USA's Winter Olympics medal count

Cross-county trends are similar. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) says sales of the annual Great Minnesota Ski pass, good on state maintained trails, have also nearly doubled during the pandemic. Since the last Olympics four years ago, sales are up 131%.

"You can ski from three to 103," Wilson said. "And we have people participating in our events at all age levels."

That does mean that skis themselves have been fast to sell out in stores at various times during the pandemic, but it's never been easier to rent them or sign up for lessons on site and online. 

The Loppet Foundation is making plans for a new kind of competition that will be open to all ages and skills. 

"That will just be a real celebration of winter and particularly for folks who are just learning to ski and maybe want to give a race a try," she said. "If you get that Jessie Diggins spirit, come race a 5K."

Just don't forget the glitter.

RELATED: Minnesota's Jessie Diggins wins bronze in cross-country skiing women's sprint

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