Kikkan Randall poses for a portrait with her gold medal on Feb. 22, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins stood on stage at PyeongChang’s Medals Plaza to receive their Olympic gold medals from the team sprint race Thursday night.
After they were introduced, both cross-country skiers stepped on the podium’s top step and began to dance. It was a dance of joy and a dance that’s been part of the team that helped them reach the Olympic medal stand.
For Randall, who’s 35, it marked the culmination of a 20-year journey to win the first Olympic medal for American women in cross-country skiing.
“I was holding it together until that Star-Spangled Banner started to play,” Randall said. “Watching that flag raise, just knowing how many times I pictured that in my head, and to do it in a team event and to represent our whole team up there, it was so amazing.”
Shortly before receiving her gold medal, Randall also learned that she had been elected to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Athletes’ Commission by her fellow athletes competing in the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. Randall was elected along with Emma Terho, a Finnish hockey player. Randall and Terho are both five-time Olympians.
Randall fills the seat vacated by American hockey player Angela Ruggiero, who just finished her eight-year term on the commission.
Less than 48 hours after winning the Olympic gold medal, Randall was swamped with media requests — all of which she is granting. She always wanted to win an Olympic medal more for her team and for cross-country skiing than for herself.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to give the spotlight to cross-country,” she said. “And to watch the race over and over and to hear how excited people have been and to just share that story has been wonderful.”
Between TV interviews with stations back home in Anchorage, Alaska, Randall reflected with TeamUSA.org on her career, her favorite Olympic moments, the IOC appointment and motherhood. She is the only mother on Team USA competing in PyeongChang.
Favorite Career Moments
Kikkan Randall did not always want to be a cross-country ski racer — even though her Aunt Betsy and Uncle Chris are both Olympians in the sport. She wanted to be an alpine ski racer like Picabo Street. And she wanted to run for an NCAA Division I program in college.
Then in 1998, her track coach suggested that she cross-country ski in the winter to stay fit. She fell in love with the sport. It had all the grace and endurance of running, plus it required power. And Randall has power.
She wanted to be the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing, and she made a 10-year-plan to do it.
Four years later, she was competing in her first Olympic Winter Games. Her best result at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games was 44th in the sprint.
Over the next 16 years, she persevered through U.S. Ski Team budget cuts, injuries and health issues, and disappointment. But she also triumphed, making it to the world cup podium 34 times, with 14 wins. And she won the world cup sprint title three consecutive seasons (2012-14).
One of her favorite career moments was her first world cup win. It was a freestyle sprint race in the northern Russian city of Rybinsk in December 2007.
“That’s 10 years ago, which is crazy,” realized Randall.
In 2009, Randall won her first of three world championship medals: a silver medal in the sprint. Then in 2013, she teamed with Diggins in the team sprint and won America’s first world title in cross-country skiing. Randall rounded out her world championship medal collection in Lahti, Finland, last year, taking a bronze medal in the sprint.
Winning the team sprint in 2013 is also a career high.
“That was the highlight of my career up until this point,” she said. “But I think we’re going to let the Olympic gold medal trump that one.”
Throughout her career, Randall has often visited schools to inspire kids. She would show them her world championship silver medal and tell them a story:
“I would be up at night and would hear this crying,” she began. “I would check on my husband and he was OK, and I would check on the cats, and they were OK. And then I would go over to my cabinet and see that it was my world championship medal and it was lonely. It really needed an Olympic medal to hang out with. So I asked the kids, ‘When you see me at the Olympics, please cheer me on and remember that poor world championship medal that needs a friend.’”
Favorite Olympic Moments
Randall is one of three five-time Olympians on the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team and the first U.S. cross-country skier to achieve the feat. Over those five Olympic Winter Games, she has competed in 18 races, finally winning a medal in the last one.
Her favorite memories come from her first Olympic Games. And her last.
“It’s hard to top that first Olympics,” she said. “Walking into the Opening Ceremony as a 19-year-old in Salt Lake as the home team, I remember we were walking toward the stadium, we were so excited. Then it took us an hour-and-a-half but we actually walked in. So the anticipation built and built.”
She also remembers starting her first Olympic race — what was then called the one-day pursuit (which has been dropped from international competition in favor of the skiathlon; both combine classic and freestyle technique).
Randall charged out of the gate and someone yelled, “Go East High!”, which referred to her high school in Anchorage.
“I went out like I was going to win the race, then about 30 seconds in, I remember I had to race 5K,” she said (the pursuit consisted of a 5-kilometer classic leg, then a 5K freestyle leg). “What was crazy about that race was I actually skied probably the best race of my season that day. I think I was a minute off [American] Nina Kemppel. I can’t remember how far I was off the win.”
Randall finished “in the 60s somewhere.”
“In a lot of ways, no one respected that result,” she said. “But I remember one of the coaches telling me, ‘You just skied the best race of your season. Give it time, you’re going to get there.’”
Sixteen years later, Randall competed in her final Olympic race — the team sprint with Diggins. The two Americans skied off the front of the pack with Norway and Sweden, with Diggins charging down the finish stretch to pass Sweden’s Stina Nilsson for the gold medal.
After Diggins collapsed on the snow in the finish corral, she asked her teammate, “Did I just win the Olympics?”
Randall jumped on top of her and screamed, “Yeah!”
Four-time Olympian Kemppel was an idol of Randall’s back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Both Alaskans, Kemppel took Randall under her wing in the latter part of her career (Kemppel retired after the 2002 Olympic Games).
Randall saw Kemppel, who is on the United States Olympic Committee board, after the gold-medal race on Wednesday night.
“I actually managed to spill champagne all over her,” said Randall with a laugh. “She was at the USA House when we came back after the race. It’s really special that she’s here.”
IOC Athletes’ Commission Appointment
Randall has always been interested in the administrative side of sports (her grandfather was a university administrator). In seventh grade, she joined a group called Young Adults Taking Action. That group helped reinstate sports at the middle school level in Anchorage after the school district cut sports from the budget. The group convinced the school that sports would cut down on vandalism.
Then in 2009, Randall was elected to the Athletes’ Commission with FIS, ski racing’s international governing body. U.S. Ski Team coach Chris Grover had encouraged her to apply. Over the next 8 years, Randall improved communications between the bureaucracy at the FIS level and the athletes.
“So often there’s this crazy disconnect where the decision-makers aren’t connected with the wishes of the athletes,” Randall explained. “And then the athletes don’t understand why decisions are being made. There’s this conflict. When I’ve been able to explain things, even if it’s not the number one thing an athlete would want, when they can understand how it all works and we have to work together, I got really good athlete engagement.”
She passed that job on to two cross-country ski colleagues last year and decided to see if she could continue the same level of communication at the IOC level.
“[Canadian gold medalist] Beckie Scott has been a role model to me in more ways than one,” said Randall. “She took a seat on the IOC Athletes’ Commission after she finished in Torino. I always thought that would be cool to follow in her footsteps.”
The IOC Athletes’ Commission has 20 members, from winter and summer sports.
Randall wants to start her eight-year term by focusing on anti-doping.
“I really see this whole [doping] crisis as an opportunity to strengthen the movement and make things more transparent,” she said.
She also wants to work on gender equality in sports. Randall is the American director of a group called Fast and Female. Founded by Randall’s friend Chandra Crawford, the 2006 Canadian Olympic gold medalist in the cross-country sprint, Fast and Female aims to get girls involved in sports. And keep them involved.
Randall took off the 2015-16 season to start a family. Son Breck was born in April 2016. Randall soon returned to training, with her eye on winning an Olympic medal in 2018. With husband Jeff Ellis, who works for FIS, the Ellis-Randall family has traveled the world the past two winters.
But Breck did not make the trip to PyeongChang. The time change for a 22-month-old, as well as the logistics and cost of getting him here, along with grandparents as caregivers, was too much. So Breck has spent the past three weeks with his paternal grandparents outside Toronto.
Randall and Ellis, who’s also in PyeongChang, have FaceTimed with Breck regularly. This is the longest stretch that they have been apart from their son.
After the team sprint, Randall showed Breck her Olympic gold medal. But Breck was more excited about the stuffed animal that his mom received right after the race — the PyeongChang mascot, Soohorang.
Randall is one of seven female cross-country skiers who are moms in PyeongChang. Norway’s Marit Bjoergen, who won the bronze medal in the team sprint (her 14th Olympic medal), is also a mom. Son Marius was born in December 2015.
As the women handed their Soohorang plush toys to Ellis to hold while they posed for photos with their ski equipment, Bjoergen said to Ellis: “Don’t lose that, that’s for Marius.”
“And that ones for Breck,” added Randall.
Beyond playing with plush toys and “heavy things” (like Olympic gold medals), Breck has been a motivator for Randall.
The night before the team sprint, Randall FaceTimed her son. As the call was winding down, she said, “OK, Mommy’s going to go race in the Olympics tomorrow, can you cheer me on?”
He took his pacifier out and just said, “Gooooooooo.” Then put the pacifier back into his mouth.
Randall thought he said a long, drawn out “go.”
Now she wonders if he said “gooooold.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.
Her new book, “World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team,” depicts the rise of the American women, including Kikkan Randall.