Kikkan Randall poses for a portrait with her gold medal on Feb. 22, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
QUEBEC CITY — Kikkan Randall walked into the room clad in her Closing Ceremony jacket from the Olympic Winter Games Torino 2006. The white podium jacket from the 2018 Games was wrapped around her waist, the beanie from the 2002 Games on her head.
Why? Because she had helped organize a reunion of the women who have competed for Team USA at the Olympic Winter Games in cross-country skiing since 1972 (when the U.S. first fielded a women’s cross-country team. The name of the group is USNOW, for U.S. Nordic Olympic Women. And Randall is the only five-time Olympian in the group.
It’s just one of the many projects that Randall, now 36, has juggled since her retirement last spring — and through her well-documented battle with breast cancer. Treatment is not over — she is still taking a cocktail of drugs, one of which shuts down the body’s estrogen production and essentially puts her into early menopause.
But Randall has remained upbeat and active through it all. With chemotherapy behind her, she is going through a restart of sorts, finally able to jump into all her “retirement” projects with energy and the ability to travel again.
“I actually feel pretty normal, besides the hot flashes I get constantly throughout the day,” she said by phone prior to flying to Quebec City to watch the world cup finals.
Randall’s future can best be described by the colorful socks on her feet — the words “It’s going to be … OK” woven into their bright blue, green, purple and yellow swirls and dots. The socks are part business project, part inspiration. And their impact is obvious by looking at the feet of several of the Olympians at the reunion.
It’s Going To Be OK
The day that Randall began chemotherapy in early July, she wore a pair of rainbow-colored running shoes to the appointment. She had found the crazy-colored shoes online last winter, ordered them, then forgot that she had ordered them. Returning to her home in Anchorage, Alaska, at the end of last season, she found them in the pile of mail.
“Oh, rainbow shoes, cool!” she thought. They might make running fun after the snow melted.
Instead, the shoes made her smile as she rode her bike to that first chemo treatment in July. “My happy shoes,” she called them.
Around the same time, her husband, Jeff Ellis, was driving their leased Subaru from their new home in Penticton, British Columbia, back to Anchorage. Listening to podcasts on the 18-hour drive, he realized that he and Randall could turn a bad situation into an opportunity. Perhaps those fun shoes could inspire others.
Ellis quit his job at a bike rack company — the reason they had moved to Penticton last spring — and fired up his entrepreneurial side.
Shoes, though, would be difficult to manufacture. But what about socks? After all, it was Randall who first found the red, white and blue striped socks that are now a trademark of the U.S. women’s cross-country ski team during relays and team sprints. Ellis came up with the slogan, “It’s going to be OK,” and Randall’s brother, Tanner, designed the logo, incorporating the cursive K of Kikkan into the “OK.”
They would donate $2 from each pair of socks to AKTIV Against Cancer, an organization founded in 2007 by nine-time New York City Marathon champion Grete Waitz and Helle Aanesen, both from Norway, to promote physical activity as part of cancer treatment (to date, the organization has donated over $17 million in support of its mission).
Ellis and Randall approached L.L.Bean with the sock idea, and the outdoor outfitter passed them on to Darn Tough, a sock manufacturer in Vermont. Darn Tough could produce the socks, but the minimum order was 1,200 pairs of socks.
Gulp. “That’s a lot,” they thought.
But why not? They placed the order. Meanwhile, L.L.Bean created an “It’s going to be OK” headband. And Ellis opened a shop on Randall’s website, Kikkan.com, selling the socks and headbands.
Within weeks, the socks sold out, so they placed another order. They also added buffs and cycling caps to the shop. To date, they have sold more than 3,000 pairs of socks and donated over $7,000 to AKTIV Against Cancer.
“We’ve been getting these incredible stories from people who’ve said literally pulling on the socks in the morning has given them the courage to go through a tough day, or encouraged them to get outside and be active, or even from someone who’s not going through something tough, but is saying ‘Hey, let’s celebrate what we can do,’” said Randall. “It’s a really cool feel-good project. They’re great socks.”
Randall particularly likes that the socks say “Darn Tough” near the toe.
Up next in the “It’s going to be OK” line: tote bags. And they continue to search for high-quality, universal products to add to the line.
So What Else Is In Randall’s Future?
Besides her duties on the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission and United States Olympic Committee board of directors, Randall is working to build Fast and Female in the U.S. The sports organization was started by friend Chandra Crawford in Canada to encourage girls to participate in sports and lead healthy lifestyles. Randall continues to work with L.L.Bean and Fischer skis, doing design work for Bean and public appearances for both companies. She is also building a motivational speaking business, helping the Minneapolis organizing committee plan for the upcoming world cup next March, and she joined the National Nordic Foundation board.
And in April, with a scholarship from the USOC's Athlete Career and Education (ACE) program, she is attending a two-week program at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business called Next Step, a course designed to help military veterans and elite athletes transition to a life in business.
“What else do I have going on?” she asked, a quiet chuckle as she exhaled. “That’s all stuff I would have done regardless.”
Now that she is a celebrity face of cancer treatment — a positive, active force bringing her message of “It’s going to be OK” — she has opportunities to inspire other cancer patients and fundraise for the disease. She is working on a documentary and a book, both of which will show her path from Olympic gold to cancer treatment, and how she faced down cancer with physical activity and positivity.
“It’s quite the whirlwind,” Randall admitted. “I feel like I have a lot of balls in the air, and I’m running around trying to keep them all in the air.”
Back To The Races
About that physical activity, Randall not only remained active during cancer treatment, she entered a few races. She competed in a 10-kilometer running race in September while she was still undergoing chemotherapy, then a 10K duathlon later in the fall.
In February, she entered the American Birkebeiner, a 50K skiing race in Cable, Wisconsin, that’s one of the granddaddies of marathon skiing. She optimistically stayed with the race leaders for four kilometers, then fell off the pace for remaining 46K. Still, she finished 12th among the women and first in her age group.
In early March, she competed in three exhibition sprint cross-country races in China — hard anaerobic efforts, even though she had not done any intervals to train for the events. She qualified for the heats in each race and even made the semifinal in one.
“I feel like a kid who hasn’t done her homework,” said Randall of the races. “I’m going to these races and my mind knows what to do, but I don’t have the training necessary to back it up. I’d go out at a pace that I’m accustomed to, but I just can’t hold it for as long.”
Next on her radar? The five-mile Alaska Run for Women on June 8, then the New York City Marathon in November.
“[The Alaska Run for Women] is something I did growing up and something I really credit for knowing when I found the lump to go do something about it,” she said. “So I’m excited to come back and run in the Survivor class for the first time."
Through it all, Randall and Ellis are parents to Breck, who turns 3 in April. He began skiing this winter and is “talking up a storm.”
They would like to expand their family, and Randall is hopeful that her natural fertility will return if she takes a hiatus from the antihormone drugs, or when the treatment ends in five years. But “waiting five years from now feels like an awful long time,” she said.
They also have one viable embryo that resulted from a round of fertility treatments before Randall began chemo last year. The frozen embryo has been tested and has all its chromosomes. But they have only a 60 percent chance of becoming pregnant with “Little Frosty” — as a friend nicknamed the embryo. And Randall will have to stop the antihormone drugs in order to become pregnant. It’s not an option for at least another year.
Back In Pink
With chemotherapy now a memory, Randall’s blonde hair began growing back this winter. It’s darker than she remembers. But nothing blonde highlights can’t fix.
As soon as her hair is long enough, she wants to add her trademark pink highlights back to her mane. It’s the first time in 15 years she has been pink-less.
“I’m hoping it’s long enough in time for the Run for Women in June to be able to put pink in it,” she said.
If only she has time to sit in a hair salon.
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 book, “World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team,” was published in February 2018.