Kikkan Randall: “Making the athletes’ voice heard”

A major protagonist on the world circuit in her specialty of cross-county ski sprint for a decade, the best US cross-country athlete in history, Kikkan Randall won gold in the team sprint with Jessica Diggins at PyeongChang 2018 and the first US victory in the sport for 94 years at the Winter Games. She talks to about this feat, as well as her election to the IOC Athletes’ Commission and her battle against illness.

In winning the team sprint, you gave the USA its first cross-country title at the Winter Games. What were your first thoughts when Jessica Diggins crossed the finish line?

From where I was standing in the finish area I could not tell who was going to win. I thought it would be a photo-finish. Then I looked at the scoreboard and I saw “number one, United States. 0/19”. Then I jumped over Jessie, and the coolest part is that all of our teammates were right along the fence there. So it was just this incredible feeling of satisfaction and validation for finally achieving something that we've been working for so long.

Your Olympic career kicked off in 2002 in Salt Lake City…

Yes, Pyeongchang 2018 was my fifth Olympics, it was my 18th Olympic race, so I've been working on it for a long time. It was really special to do it as a team, because I've always really thrived in the team events, when you get to share this experience with others, when you know they're counting on you. I think it was even more special that if I had won a gold medal on my own.

How did that race go?

I just remember that night feeling so Olympic. Because we were underneath the big stadium lights. The way the course was, it was starting down the arena, then you climbed this big uphill, then there was this fast downhill before coming back to the arena. I knew Norway and Sweden would be tough, those women are some of the best of all time. (....) I tagged Jessie on the final lap in medal contention, having all the confidence that she would ski an amazing last lap, and just so happy that I did my job. She was up against tough competition: Stina Nillson of Sweden had just been crowned Olympic sprint champion, and Maiken Falla from Norway was the defending Olympic and world champion. But Jessie in the relay, she can dig deeper than anyone I know. And we had fantastic skis. A big part of this whole thing is the work our wax team did – doing incredible work in between the rounds, and they tested so many skis. That was certainly a huge piece of this puzzle, because every time in the downhills, we were coming up in the front. So it was just kind of cool to see this whole thing – everybody working together, all to come to that finish line and the gold medal.

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How did you find the organisation and general atmosphere?

For me, coming into those Olympics, I knew it would be my last one. So I really wanted to take it all in, to really enjoy it, not rushing through it, not only focus on the competitions. So I went to the hair salon of the Village, and I got my hair dyed blonde and pink, it was my first time doing that. I loved the atmosphere at the Village. Finally, as cross-country skiers, we got to be in the big Village, and so it was really cool to see athletes from all sports and all nations, and the big dining hall, and they had a lot of great activities going on. I was really impressed with the layout of that. Then it was also really easy for us to get in the bus to the cross-country venue, which was on a golf course. It was challenging, a very Olympic course, I thing they did a great job with that course. The snow conditions were a little bit challenging with Mother Nature being so cold in the beginning. But luckily for our sport, the weather did not impact on safety, and the competition was fair. The only downside is that I did not have my son with me – he was back in Canada with my husband's parents. But it also gave me a chance to enjoy my teammates. And we had a lot of fun together, just kind of staying happy, staying loose... I really tried to soak in every moment.

You grew up in a family of cross-country Olympians: your uncle, Chris Haines, competed in Innsbruck in 1976, and your aunt, Betsy Haines in Lake Placid in 1980. How much did they inspire you?

I think It was really important to me growing up to have two Olympians in my family. Because we just talked about the Olympics. As a kid, it felt like a really natural thing, a thing that could really happen because people in my own family had done it. It was important for my whole family, my parents, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, we all got together to watch the Olympics. So I remember at five years old deciding that I was going to go to the Olympics too! No matter what sport I would pick. The Olympics have always been very central in my life, I was always fascinated with them.

Tell us about your sports career

Growing up, I tried lot of different things. I was an Alpine ski racer for a while and was dreaming of going to the Olympics in Alpine. I think when I was between 12 and 14, I also did speed skiing in competition. I was the only woman, so I went about 74 miles an hour, it was a record, I couldn't go any faster! I also got into running for a while. When I was in high school, I was in the running and my coach moved out of town. So I needed a new training group. And this new ski group had just started. And I said: “oh, I can do that”. The coaches of the ski programme started to think that I had some potential and I realised that cross-country skiing was the combination of all those other sports. It had the excitement of downhill, the team spirit of football, the “push yourself” mentality like in running. And I was really intrigued by the fact that no American woman had ever won an Olympic medal. I believed it was possible, even though no one had done it before. I didn't know it was going to take so long. But it was worth it.

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What memories do you have of your first Games in Salt Lake City?

That was so incredible. I was 19 years old. I was born in Salt Lake City, and of course, it was an American venue. I remember going into our team processing and getting a shopping card. And then going around the room and getting our team USA uniform. I remember getting ready to walk in the Opening Ceremony and being so excited. We were the last team to come in and I had got to the front of the group, so I was one of the first of all the American athletes to walk in. And to walk in that stadium with 80,000 fans, it was just a dream come true. For my first Olympic race, it was so exciting to compete in front of my friends and family, and to do it with my heroes in cross-country skiing. I also knew that I was there to get experience. I did not feel tremendous pressure to have to perform, I knew it was going to take me time to develop as a podium contender. I finished 44th in Salt Lake. I knew it was just the beginning.

What happened then?

In my specialty of the sprint, I finished 9th in Turin in 2006, and 8th in Vancouver in 2010, and I was eliminated by 5/100ths of a second in my quarter-final heat in Sochi in 2014. In the meantime, I won the general sprint ranking three times at the World Cup in 2012, 2013 and 2014, had multiple victories and podium places, and above all, became world sprint champion with Jessica Diggins in 2013. The peak of my career at that point.

And here we are in 2018…

Since that race in 2013, Jessica and I had not done a team sprint together until PyeongChang. So when we were getting ready for our race in PyeongChang, we said: “OK, what worked for us that day, back in 2013?” So we just kind of did everything the same, we watched our favourite Glee clip, this TV show, we put off our relay socks, we put off our face paints. We just kind of did what we did there, and that was just basically have a great day together, have fun and ski our best. The last song we listened to was “Don't Stop Believin’”, and I think it was a good sign. And the magic worked again!

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In PyeongChang, you were elected to the IOC Athletes’ Commission…

Once that gold medal happened, it just turned into a whole new experience. It was this rush of media interviews and then the next day was the election for the IOC Athletes’ Commission. That was very exciting, and when I found I was elected, it was a whole whirlwind of meeting with the President, meeting with the Athletes’ Commission, being sworn in as an IOC member, rehearsing for the Closing Ceremony. That was just wild and to walk into this Closing Ceremony with the gold medal around our necks, that was so exciting!

What are your goals on the Athletes’ Commission?

It's a big responsibility, but it's exciting to be so involved in the Olympic Movement and to be able to make a difference. I decided to run for the position because as a kid, I loved the Olympics, I have a kid now, and I want the Olympics to be a positive influence in his life and for future generations. The Olympics for sure is facing some challenges right now. I want to bring my experience having been to five different Olympics, having done some athlete representation in my International Federation, where I chaired the athletes’ commission for a while, on how you connect with the athletes, on how you can have good communication so you can bring the voice of the athletes to the table and make sure they are part of the decision. But also we need to bring more information to the athletes. My big goals are to help establish that proper communication and strengthen from that. I also really care about anti-doping, strengthening that system to make it stronger for clean sport. And then, now that I'm an athlete who is transitioning out of my ski career into new careers, I'm really interested in how we can support athletes to develop skills while they are competing and set them up for their careers after sport. And hopefully also, engage more athletes in sport later on, as leaders, coaches, administrators. I’m also on the IOC Women in Sport Commission. Keeping girls in sport and bringing more women in sports, this has always been a passion of mine.

You are currently fighting an illness. What is your message to all those who find themselves in the same situation?

This experience of going through treatment for breast cancer has been something I never imagined myself going through and of course something I would never wish on anybody. But it taught me a lot about myself. It's very similar to chasing big goals in athletics. So a lot of the things that I had to do to work my way to a gold medal are skills that I used to get through my treatment. A big one is physical activity. Because I came into this so physically active and healthy, I haven't had so many side effects, my energy stayed pretty good, I've bounced back pretty quickly. I also made the commitment to stay active through my treatment. Even on days when I wasn't feeling very good, I would get out and do some sort of activity, and it made me feel better. So I think it's important to show people how important physical activity is to stay healthy. There is also the mental side. Knowing there are a lot of things I can't control, and that it's not worth it spending time on those things, I can focus my time on what I can control, and I can choose my attitude. And if I choose to be positive and optimistic, to look forward, to be in the moment and really enjoy the things around me, that gets me through the tough times, and I've also been fortunate to get amazing support. Thankfully, all my experience in my athletic career has helped me though this. It's been a rough few months, but my energy is coming up, I feel much better, and now I'm just excited to get back into normal life and do all those things that I had to put on hold for a little while.

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