Go For The Gold: Kikkan Randall

 Go For The Gold

BY PEGGY SHINN I APRIL 9, 2013

 
Kikkan Randall celebrates at the podium after winning the women's
3.1-kilometer free individual prologue at DKB Ski Arena on
Dec. 29, 2012 in Oberhof, Germany.

It’s difficult to pick a highlight of Kikkan Randall’s 2013 cross-country ski season. There were simply too many.

Was it her seven World Cup wins — the most she has ever won in one season? Or her third place finish in a World Cup 10-kilometer freestyle race back in November — the first podium for the sprint specialist in a distance race?

Could it have been the U.S. women’s first World Cup 4 x 5-kilometer relay podium back in November? Randall skied the second leg and helped the team finish third.

Or was it her first World Cup team sprint win in December with Jessie Diggins in Quebec, Canada?

Could it have been Randall’s and Diggins’ World Championships gold medal in the freestyle team sprint in late February?

Or her second overall World Cup sprint title? Randall also finished third overall in the women’s World Cup cross-country standings, the first American woman to ever finish in the top-three.

“They were all such high marks,” said Erik Flora, Randall’s personal coach and Alaska Pacific University head nordic coach. “The world championship was a big deal for sure because that was one of her goals, and to do it in a team sprint made it extra special. The repeat on the sprint World Cup, of course that’s exceptional too. But the third place overall, that’s showing that she’s an exceptional sprinter and her distance racing has come so far too.”

Heading to her fourth Olympic Winter Games in Sochi next winter, Randall, 30, now feels more prepared than ever.

“This is what I hoped for all along, to head into an Olympics knowing that I could be a strong medal contender for sure in the sprint, but now also knowing that I have some shots at a relay medal,” she said by phone from the SuperTour Finals in California’s Tahoe region. “And when my distance is on, I can be on the podium too.”

* * *

Kikkan Randall’s Olympic dreams did not always wind down cross-country skiing’s trails. Her father had alpine aspirations for his daughter, even naming her in part after Kiki Cutter, the first American to win a World Cup alpine ski race in 1968 (her parents settled on Kikkan, a combination of Kiki and her mother’s preferred baby name, Megan). The day after her first birthday, little Kikkan was on alpine skis. By age 12, she wanted to be the next Picabo Street, and two years later, in 1997, Randall was the Alaska state speed skiing champion, flying down a mountain at 74.14 mph.

 
Jessica Diggins (L) and Kikkan Randall celebrate victory in the
women's team sprint final at the FIS Nordic World Ski
Championships on Feb. 24, 2013 in Val di Fiemme, Italy.

At East Anchorage High School, she switched from alpine to cross-country skiing. A state champion in cross-country running and track, Randall needed an aerobic winter sport. The niece of two Olympians in cross-country — Uncle Chris Haines and Aunt Betsy Haines competed in the 1976 and 1980 Winter Games, respectively — Randall quickly took to skinny skis and began showing the traits that would carry her up the World Cup ladder. Her cross-country running teammates dubbed her “Kikkanimal” for her insistence on doing extra work: one more interval or set of pushups. She knew deep down that if she wanted it badly enough, worked hard enough, and was patient enough, she could get where she wanted to go: To be the best cross-country skier in the world.

“I don’t know where that [belief] came from, but I’m glad I had it,” she said.

Randall made the U.S. Ski Team in 2000, graduated from high school in 2001, and calls 2002 a pivotal year — not because she made her first Olympic team but because of what she witnessed at the Olympics. The U.S. men cracked the top 25 in three Olympic races and then finished fifth in the 4 x 10km relay. It was the Americans’ best relay result since Bill Koch led the U.S. men to sixth at the 1976 Olympic Winter Games.

The following year, Kris Freeman took fourth at the 2003 World Championships. Then in 2006, Andy Newell finished on the podium in a World Cup sprint. For Randall, an Olympic medal suddenly seemed possible.

“[Their results] helped my growth and my confidence and definitely increased my motivation,” Randall said. “I owe a lot of credit to those guys for getting this ball rolling.”

Even with setbacks, like a life-threatening blood clot in her leg in 2008 and a stress fracture in her foot this past summer, Randall’s march up the World Cup rankings has been remarkably steady. In 2007, Randall won her first World Cup. Two years later, she took silver in the sprint at the 2009 World Championships. In 2012, she stood on the World Cup podium six times and won her first overall sprint title. This season, in her 100th World Cup race in March, she wrapped up her second overall title, and she and Diggins were world champions in the team sprint.

“My fitness gets a little stronger every year, the experience gets a little sharper, I can handle being on the road for a long time, and I know when I’m going to peak,” she said. “It’s all coming together. I have to say it’s quite fun. You think you’ve hit the top, and you keep finding another level.”

“A lot has to do with who she is, her strength as a person, her persistence, and lots of attention to detail in training over the past 10 years,” added Flora. “It’s all building on itself.”

A key to Randall’s recent success has been the newfound strength of the U.S. women’s team. Until last year, Randall was the only woman on the national team. She traveled alone, trained alone, and spent a lot of time reading books on her computer. For an outgoing person like Randall, it was not an ideal situation.

So she began helping to build a U.S. women’s team. Last winter, Diggins, Holly Brooks, Sadie Bjornsen, Liz Stephen and Ida Sargent burst onto the World Cup scene. Building on each other’s successes, they have all notched top-five results — and five of the six women have won World Cup medals. Some of Randall’s favorite moments this year were the team’s successes in the relays and team sprints.

“The ladies on the team are really supportive of each other but also really competitive,” said Flora, adding that they have been “a really important part of Kikkan’s success.”

 

The U.S. women train together. But mostly they have fun, decorating their faces with glitter, wearing goofy patriotic socks that Randall purchased at a European convenient store, making a Taylor Swift music video parody and challenging other teams to do the same. For Randall, who has long had pink-tinged blonde hair, her new teammates have become a “second family.”

“Even other teams have noticed the chemistry we’ve been able to build,” Randall said. “We’re the envy of the World Cup now.”

Randall has also enjoyed real family on the road this year. Her husband, Jeff Ellis, was on the World Cup tour all season working for the International Ski Federation.

Heading to Sochi, Randall is a heavy favorite to win the U.S.’s first cross-country Olympic medal since Bill Koch’s silver in 1976. Although the 2014 Olympic team sprint will be a classic event — and freestyle, which is like a speedskating stride, is her strength — Randall is eyeing medals in three events: the freestyle sprint, 4 x 5km team relay, and the classic team sprint.

And she has an outside chance of medaling in the 10km classic race.

“I wouldn’t put it out of the question,” said Flora, with a knowing laugh.

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.