It was almost as if Aino-Kaisa Saarinen read Kikkan Randall’s mind. Longtime acquaintances, the two international cross-country superstars knew the best time to find each other – for a warmdown, a distance ski or just a chat.
Finland’s two-time Olympian and multiple world champion, Saarinen caught Randall before a morning run in March at the World Cup Finals in Falun, Sweden. Fortunately for Saarinen, the sprint World Cup winner was in mid-thought.
“I saw her and said, ‘Hey, you were just the person I wanted to see,’ ” Randall said in a phone conversation on Tuesday. “ ‘Would you like to come to Alaska to train with us this summer?’ ”
Saarinen, 33, couldn’t believe it. The last time she traveled to the U.S. was in 2001 for the pre-Olympics World Cup at Soldier Hollow, Utah. She had never been to Alaska.
“She said, ‘Me? Yeah, I’d be totally interested,’ ” Randall said.
Not long after, the two finalized the details and set a date to meet up again in late June – this time on the Pacific Ocean for a two-week camp in Anchorage. A U.S. Ski Team veteran, Randall hadn’t asked her coaches at Alaska Pacific University if it would be OK to invite Saarinen to the second annual North American Women’s Training Alliance, but she knew it wouldn’t be a problem.
They wanted to have a European at the camp, based in Anchorage and on snow at Eagle Glacier, but just didn’t know whom to ask. Randall and her American teammates were already close with the Swedish women. Anna Haag hosted Randall and Liz Stephen in Sweden last summer, and the entire U.S. women’s team is headed overseas in August for their first joint camp with Sweden.
Randall was thinking about her Swedish friends that morning in Falun when Saarinen came by. She had known Saarinen for more than a decade and traced their relationship back to the days when she was the only female on the U.S. team. In the last four years, they had grown even closer.
“I always found she was pretty friendly,” Randall said. “I also knew being an older athlete, she’s done a lot of the same training things and I thought maybe she’d want a different experience.”
Randall remembered Saarinen, a three-time Olympic bronze medalist, commented on her Facebook and Twitter posts about the Alaska camp last year. Back then, the American and Canadian women teamed up for the first extended period; this year, they took it one step further and invited a European.
After spending a few summers in Scandinavia, Randall was curious to see what Saarinen thought of the U.S., including their training methods and eating habits. Right off the bat, Saarinen couldn’t believe how long it took to fly from Helsinki, and Randall said her 13-hours of travel was about eight hours short of what it usually took.
On Tuesday, Randall completed a rollerski interval workout with teammate Jessie Diggins then picked up Saarinen at the airport. She said Saarinen was resting that afternoon before heading out with her and Diggins for a jog and evening strength session.
Saarinen would stay at Randall’s house for the next three weeks, and APU also helped her save money by paying for her connecting flight from Frankfurt to Anchorage.
When the camp officially kicks off on Monday, Randall has a feeling it won’t be long until APU head coach Erik Flora shows one of his favorite ski clips. It’s of Saarinen striding up what Randall called a “monster climb” at a sprint World Cup in Kuusamo, Finland.
“She really nails the course there,” Randall said, adding that she’s excited to observe Saarinen, especially in classic workouts.
“She’s the multiple world champion, Olympic medalist and one of the better technical skiers out there,” Randall added. “I’m looking forward to … seeing what I can pick up, and hopefully she can learn a little from us, too.”