It is saying nothing new to point out that Kikkan Randall becoming the World Cup Sprint Champion last season was a breakthrough for U.S. skiing. The enormity of the moment in March when an American woman was handed the crystal globe has been well documented since the conclusion of the 2012 season. Each photo that has surfaced online this summer of Randall, her trophy and a new group of wide-eyed fans is a reminder of how much her achievement means to members of the ski community across the country.
In Randall’s own career, the World Cup overall sprint title is undoubtedly a significant milestone. Flashy results at major championships may be yet to come, but at the age of 29 she finally reached the step on the podium she’s wanted to climb from a very young age. In hindsight, it would be convenient to look back at her intermediate accomplishments on the way to global domination and say that a crystal globe was a guarantee. But this would be inaccurate — like any athlete, Randall needed to achieve the little goals first to believe the bigger one was attainable. That confidence, she says, has had more than a casual bearing on her career trajectory.
“Early on it was small things like winning a national championship (2004), getting top-tens at World Juniors (2000 and 2001), but at that point being the best skier in the world still seemed pretty far away,” Randall said in a recent interview.
“I think it was in 2006 when I got my top-ten at the Olympics and then fifth in a World Cup at the end of that season, and next getting a win, next getting a World Championships medal (2009) — these things just kept building and building, and once I got on the World Cup podium (2007) that’s when it really started to feel possible.
“This past season, the consistency, the level I was able to reach every weekend and be in contention for the sprint title and a top-five overall — now I’m feeling really confident that I’ve done the right things to be on track for the rest of my goals.”
What was once a far-off possibility has now been confidently checked off the list. Season-long consistency was a big item, but Randall has plenty of goals left yet to accomplish before she retires.
“I think when I’m looking back on my career, these overall accomplishments, the sprint globe, top-five overall — and I hope to continue to improve on that, I’d love to be fighting for the overall title in a couple of years — but to be at the top of those season-long rankings and still posting top results at championships, that proves to me you’ve made it to the best,” she said.
“At World Championships or the Olympics, that can be one race, one day, fluke conditions. I think the people who are fastest and most prepared are the ones who win most of the time, but occasionally there are flukes in there. I’m definitely aiming to win a medal in Sochi, but I learned all too well in Oslo that things can change, and when you get one shot you just never know.”
The high point of Randall’s career so far has effectively demolished the notion that being an American-born skier is a barrier to world-class success. In 2012, Randall reset the conversation and established a new normal for the next generation of skiers in the U.S., a fact she is acutely aware of.
“Kind of like when Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile, everyone thought it was impossible,” she said. “Then once he did it people went, ‘Huh. Possible.’ More people started doing it immediately.
“The same is true for [American skiers]. It took a while to break through, but now that everyone can see it’s possible to win a World Cup, win World Championship medals, be top-ten at the Olympics, podium in team sprints, all that kind of stuff — they know that if they work hard, it’s totally possible.”
The result of this knowledge is that Randall’s teammates are improving, and have begun climbing podium steps of their own. A lot of hard, smart, independent work has gone into each individual result that the U.S. women posted last season, but the parallel timing of the team improvement with Randall’s individual accomplishments is too remarkable to ignore.
Look back to the 2010-2011 season: the U.S. women amassed 27 individual top-30s (23 of them Randall’s) and finished the year tenth in the FIS Nation’s Cup rankings.
One year later those numbers jumped to 72 individual top-30s, excluding the Tour de Ski, and the American women ended sixth in the 2012 Nation’s Cup. As Liz Stephen pointed out in April, “everybody had a result that was a best-ever at some point [last] season.”
The remarkable thing about the team’s collective improvement is that it came so suddenly after its very formation. The U.S. Ski Team officially created a women’s team in 2011, adding three rookie women to its roster and making Matt Whitcomb its dedicated coach.
When Randall first began competing internationally, however, she was essentially a one-woman team. In training she was often alone, and on the World Cup she would sit out relays and watch the group dynamics on other teams, wishing she had something like it at home.
“Many times I’d be out training with [APU head coach] Erik Flora going, ‘Man, I enjoy training with you, but I wish I had some other girls around to push me,’” Randall said.
At the time, there weren’t many female athletes in the U.S. who could challenge her in a workout. But somewhere between 2007 and 2012, things have changed. In Anchorage, Randall and Flora built a team at APU that now includes several women who can push Randall in the off-season. On the USST, the nation-wide depth of women’s talent reached a point last spring at which a female squad and dedicated coach became a necessary restructuring.
On a less tangible level, Randall says the USST has truly begun acting like a coherent team in the last few years. Two winters ago, there was a moment where she saw clearly that something clicked with her teammates.
“We decided to start getting together before a race all wearing the same team uniform and going out and doing our pre-race workouts together,” she said. “Before that we’d kind of just done our own thing. We just decided ‘Hey, this might be a good thing.’ So we started doing it, and we enjoyed it, and it was a great way to get ready for the race, and people started to notice that we were doing it together.”
Before there was The Team Behaving Like A Team, there were simply A Lot of People Trying to Be Like Kikkan. Now that Randall’s results have allowed her to raise her own expectations, those around her have internalized her success and started on the path to repeating it at a more rapid rate.
Before departing for Europe for her first World Cup season with the USST last year, APU skier Sadie Bjornsen talked about the benefits of being able to observe and train with Randall on a regular basis.
“[Her confidence] has worn off on us. At camps she’ll be talking to those Swedish girls, and all of a sudden we’re talking to them too. It’s awesome getting to know these athletes through her, and her confidence rubs off on us. It’s pretty sweet,” she said.
Comments like those, even now, catch Randall a little off guard. “I’m just doing what I do, just focusing on improving and trying to encourage people around me, but I guess you never realize how much you’re being watched and what people are picking up from just your actions,” she said.
In December, Bjornsen stood on her first World Cup podium with Randall for their team sprint performance in Dusseldorf. Later that season, the U.S. women were fifth in the 4×5 k relay in Nove Mesto — without Randall, who happened to be sick that day. Jessie Diggins notched her first podium, too, and in her first winter on the World Cup worked her way into the Red Group in just half a season.
“That is what happens when you work together,” said USST women’s coach Matt Whitcomb in Falun, Sweden, as the season wound down at World Cup Finals.
“That’s a team right there.”
It is safe to say, then, that Randall’s personal athletic trajectory and the parallel momentum of her team are at least two things that are correlated with each other. It is difficult to know which is cause and which is effect; training partners have helped Randall’s skiing while her APU and USST teammates have undoubtedly benefited from training with the top sprinter in the world.
“It’s about the dynamic, the training environment that’s been created,” Flora said. “It works both ways. You take the NAWTA group from this summer — Chandra, Jessie, Holly, Saarinen, etc. — and you put Kikkan in the mix, the group benefits from having her push in workouts and her gung-ho approach, but there’s return, too. The good training environment she creates, she benefits from. All of a sudden you have these other accomplished ladies pushing her as well.”
Randall’s push for group training has crossed national boundaries, expanding well beyond her own team and into Norway, Sweden, Canada and Finland. Four summers ago Randall took it upon herself to go to Norway and learn how the Norwegian approach to training separated their results from hers. As she found out, it wasn’t much. But she also learned that training with women in other countries could be valuable simply for the challenge it brought to workouts and for the real-time confirmation that her own training was headed in the right direction.
“What Kikkan was pushing [with collaborative training] was because of circumstance, being away from other top World Cup skiers,” Flora said. “It’s a new style of thinking; you can go out and find a training group that can help build your performances. Those [geographic] barriers are disappearing.”
Since that first trip to Norway, Randall has continued to reach out to athletes from other countries to create collaborative training opportunities. She’s a better skier now, which makes her a more sought-after training partner. The North American Women’s Training Alliance (NAWTA) camp that first convened two years ago on Eagle Glacier has become multi-national with the inclusion this winter of Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen. The entire U.S. women’s team was invited to Sweden for two weeks of training with the Swedish national team this summer.
“She’s become a much more valuable training partner now that she’s the top sprinter in the world,” Flora said. “When she went to Sweden this year it was a big deal for them to have her there… The Swedish coaches are watching her now to see what she’s doing. Everybody leaves with more confidence.”
That isn’t just talk from a proud coach. Charlotte Kalla (SWE), who finished last season one place ahead of Randall in overall World Cup standings, remarked on the tangible energy she noticed on the U.S. team during their joint camp.
“I had a really good time with the American women in Sälen and Torsby” she wrote in an email. “It was so much more than just excellent training sessions. We had a lot of fun between the exercises. There is so much energy around the girls from America and you can almost touch the feeling of love for their sport. We [will] have to fight hard this winter if we want to cross the finish line ahead of them, that’s for sure!”
The Kikkan Effect extends beyond Randall’s elite-level teammates and competitors. Thanks to Randall’s and her teammates’ involvement with Fast and Female, the positivity has trickled down through the competitive levels and directly reached hundreds of junior girls, as well. The organization that Chandra Crawford began in Canada to empower young women through athletic achievement has spread all over North America since its founding in 2005. Nearly every women’s training camp, it seems, now has a Fast and Female event organized around it. Randall’s presence and leadership at events, Flora says, has a powerful effect on the girls in attendance.
“Her presence is like magic; you can watch it,” Flora said. “Fast and Female is a good example. You take a whole bunch of girls on skis and she jumps in there, and pretty soon they’re all doing sprints, competing head-to-head, and again you see the confidence. You see the girls walk away from the event and the light bulb’s gone off: ‘I can do this. She did and she’s here, so I can do this, too.’
“Five, ten years from now we’re going to have a flood of elite women skiing thanks to Fast and Female… With our juniors you can see the same thing. They see the road is there, that Kikkan has been able to do it. Rather than wondering if it’s possible, they can see that it is.”
The model pathway that Randall has established will continue long past the end of her own career; in a way, it exists independently of what happens next for the Alaskan. Her recent injury and surgery present a significant hurdle for Randall to overcome in the immediate future. She’s managed to improve in some way almost every season since she began, and it will be a new experience for her to put short-term goals on hold in recovery.
“It’s definitely a change for me,” Randall said. “I have all the excitement of what happened last season and want to just jump right back in. I was training pretty hard through mid-August so it’s been hard to take a step back. But I’m just trying to make sure I’m patient enough so I don’t have to carry this into the next couple of years.”
This is where the Kikkan Effect comes full-circle. Randall will be racing her way back into shape for the first part of the season, but as the U.S. women proved last winter, they’re capable of holding their own.
“The girls have trained better than I’ve ever seen them train. With the preparation and then the confidence from last season — I mean, I think they’re capable of improving on their best results from last season,” Randall said. “I’m excited. It takes some pressure off me knowing that my teammates will continue to come through with some big results and keep the momentum going.