GeneralInterviewsNewsOlympicsRacingUS Ski TeamWorld CupKikkan Randall: The Exit Interview (Part I): Looking Back

Gavin Kentch Gavin KentchMay 11, 2018
Kikkan Randall (l) and Jessie Diggins listening to the U.S. national anthem after being awarded their 2018 Olympic gold medals from the freestyle team sprint in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: FlyingPointRoad)

Kikkan Randall competed in her first World Cup race in 2001, and her last in 2018. In between, she won 14 World Cup races, three Sprint Cup Crystal Globes, three World Championships medals, and one Olympic gold medal accompanied by one very enthusiastic broadcast call from Chad Salmela. She appeared in television ads, received the Skis to the City from the mayor of Anchorage, and had an ice-cream flavor named after her. And long before she brought cross-country skiing to the attention of The New York Times and The Guardian, she was mentioned on FasterSkier over 2,000 times. (The first-ever hit on this site seems to date to November 2002, a two-paragraph recap of the West Yellowstone sprint. Other podium finishers included Brooke Baughman for the women, and Lars Flora and then-junior skier Andy Newell for the men.)

This is presumably not Randall’s final appearance in FasterSkier; if nothing else, tune in next week for Part 2 of this interview. But it may be one of the last times she talks with FasterSkier while she still appears on the “current World Cup athletes” page of the International Ski Federation (FIS) site.

Note: The following story is based on an in-person interview with Randall in late April. FasterSkier’s narrative is in bold; everything else is a direct quote from Randall.

Let’s go back to the beginning, way back. Randall has said that she was all of five years old when, sitting in her grandparents’ living room, she “decided right then and there I wanted to go to the Olympics.”

But where does that drive come from? What makes a kindergartener form such a belief, even one with Olympian role models within the family? (Randall’s aunt and uncle, Betsy and Chris Haines, were American nordic Olympians in 1976 and 1980.) To answer this question, Randall goes even farther back, to 1983, to a time when the infant who would one day become the world’s fastest woman on skis was experiencing the first tantalizing glimpses of mobility on her hands and knees.

I gotta think there’s some innate thing in my personality that orients me [toward being that driven]. My parents have a story of being at a picnic when I was just learning to crawl and putting me down on the grass, and there was a playground about 200 feet away. And I just started crawling toward the playground. And my parents were like, Well, we’re going to see how far she goes, expecting that I’d get a little ways and then look back.

And I never looked back. I went all the way to the playground. And at another point, some woman from the picnic went over and picked me up, and was like, ‘I can’t believe you’re letting this kid go off.’ And my parents were like, ‘We just wanted to see how far she would go.’

Kikkan Randall (bib 136) runs in a community race in Anchorage, Alaska, in the mid-1980s. (Photo: KTVA 11 screenshot)

So there’s obviously something, I think in my personality, that makes me want to go after what I want. But I also grew up with amazing role models. I mean, within my own family, my aunt and uncle went to the Olympics, so I already had a great example of what the Olympics was, how possible it was. And then my parents, who always supported me, told me to chase after what I wanted to do, to not really put limits on it, and then allowed me to kind of chase after what I was interested in.

But then instilling along the way that once you commit to something, you do it and you don’t give up, and the most important thing is giving your best and all those things.

And then growing up in a place like Anchorage, where I grew up doing all these different activities, and around people where as a girl I never felt like I had less opportunity, that there was anything less possible. If anything, because I saw so many strong women athletes around me, I wanted to be a strong woman athlete myself, and set an example for others. So when no American woman had won a medal, it’s like, Well, we need a women’s medal. We gotta be on par with the men.

So really, just a great supportive environment and always just a drive. And always a lot of self-confidence. I’m not sure where that came from, exactly, I think I just developed that over time, but that really helped, too.

To find the first FIS race of Randall’s career, it helps to set the FIS database to show 100 results per page. And even then, you have to click through to the sixth page of results to find the beginning. That’s right: Randall competed in, loosely defined, nearly 600 FIS races in her career (counting sprint qualification and finals results separately, as the database does).

The first-ever FIS race was a 15-kilometer interval start classic race at U.S. Nationals held at “Wasatch State Park,” better known as 2002 Winter Olympics site Soldier Hollow. It was January 10, 2000. The Y2K Bug had thankfully not caused the world to end 10 days earlier. The Billboard Hot 100 number one song was “Smooth,” by Santana. AltaVista, valued at roughly $2.3 billion, was the dominant internet search engine, though challenges from an ascendant young company named Google were on the horizon.

From left to right: Nina Kemppel, Jim Stray-Gundersen and John Farra gathering with Team USA for Opening Ceremony at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. (Photo: Peter Hale)

Randall had just turned 17 years old. She was in her junior year of high school, and had never raced this distance before. Nonetheless, she finished 12th out of 59 FIS finishers.

The podium in this race was made up of Beckie Scott, Nina Kemppel and Rebecca Quinn (now Dussault). Kemppel was born in 1970, and once raced against Nancy Fiddler. Other finishers in this race were born in the 1960s. Every finisher had a FIS number that starts with a 1. Randall’s been doing this for a long time.

Randall is handed a results sheet that dates from the Clinton administration, and is asked if she remembers anything about this race. The reminiscences immediately begin.

Oh yeah, my first time at senior nationals. It was my first 15 k ever. And I started second to last. And because I had never raced 15 k before, and it was individual start, I was quite intimidated. And it was one 15 k loop; that was one of the last times they had such a long loop.

It was a classic race, and I remember skiing up the first k, and noticing that there were chunks missing from the track. It happened to be one of those conditions where, right around freezing, are you klister, are you hardwax? And the reason why there were chunks missing is because people are icing so bad that they would have to stop.

And so, I was just like, Oh man, am I going to survive this 15 k? And I skied around, and thankfully we got the skis pretty well; I never had any major icing issues. And at points I lost kick, but I made it through. It was a pretty exciting first experience, and then I was pretty amazed to finish so well. [Randall came down to earth slightly in her second-ever FIS race, a 5 k skate two days later, finishing 48th.]

Fast forward just over a year later, to January 2001, when Soldier Hollow was again the setting for Randall’s first-ever World Cup race, a skate sprint. Czech skier Kateřina Neumannová had the fastest time in qualifying; Norway’s Bente Skari won the final.

Randall notched a 24th in qualifying, which at the time left her eight spots out of making the heats. She was the third American in the 53-racer field, behind Kemppel in 17th and Tessa Benoit in 20th. Benoit’s final entry in the FIS database is from 2002. Again, Randall has been doing this for a long time.

Randall is once again handed a printout of the results sheet, and asked what she remembers.

I scored World Cup points, and that was pretty exciting. And that’s when they only took the top-16 into the finals [of a sprint race]. So I was pretty happy with 24th; of course I wanted to be in the heats. I do remember that as my first World Cup. But it’s crazy that it was 17 years ago.

[A reporter notes, upon looking at the results, that Randall’s competitors in this race included Ukrainian skier Irina Terelia, who was born in 1966 and is now 52 years old.]

Norway’s Bente Skari (l) and Mathias Fredriksson of Sweden with their crystal globes after winning the 2003 Overall World Cup. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons)

Wow. I mean, what’s pretty impressive, though, is like these were some of the biggest names that I grew up hearing about in the sport, that I got to race against. So I remember getting Bente Skari’s autograph, Stefania Belmondo’s autograph, like on my hat at this World Cup. So, pretty fun. And all of a sudden people are looking at the results listing [and seeing Randall’s 1982 birth year] going, ‘Oh my god, ’82, that’s so old.’

While the first World Cup race, at age 18, proved an auspicious beginning, there was nonetheless a learning curve involved in making the jump to international competition. Randall’s second-ever World Cup start, a classic team sprint at Torino four years later in January 2005, was respectable enough; she and teammate Wendy Wagner went out in the semifinals, but avoided placing last by finishing 12th out of 14 teams.

But the following month brought the third World Cup start and first World Cup distance race of Randall’s career, a 10 k interval start freestyle in Reit im Winkl, Germany. Randall was one of two Americans in the race, along with Rebecca Dussault. Randall started with bib 6 in a field of 70, reflecting FIS distance points that were not particularly low. (Marit Bjørgen started last.) Randall finished 70th out of 70, dead last, behind athletes from China, Japan and Lithuania. She was 80 seconds back from 68th place, and nearly 5 minutes back from the winner over 10 k. It was a 154-point FIS result. “It was a rough day for the North American teams,” FasterSkier observed.

It was raining.

So even Randall has finished a race dead last, and questioned herself along the way. (As the saying goes, DFL is better than DNF. But the latter status prevailed at World Championships later that month; Randall did not get the chance to anchor the women’s 4 x 5 k relay team when the Americans were lapped and pulled from the course during the third lap of four. The American women are now consistent relay podium threats. Randall’s been doing this a long time.)

Randall is asked what her thought process was at the time – not what she thinks now, 13 years later, when success was eventually achieved and her whole career can now retrospectively follow a ready narrative arc of struggle and redemption, with Olympic gold as the final chapter. But rather what she thought then, when there was no U.S. women’s ski team, and she was spending her winters going back and forth between North America and Europe, working to build a path that didn’t really exist yet.

Initially it was fine to get those kinds of results, because I had this approach that, OK, well, I’m gaining experience, I’ve still got more training to do, and I am going to get there someday. But then after you’d been around it a little while, it did feel hard, and that result in Germany, finishing last… I mean, I remember just being kind of in a really miserable state at that point and just – I was missing home, I wasn’t enjoying the racing, I fought with myself that whole race to keep myself from quitting. And just wondering if this is what I really wanted to continue doing.

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But thankfully, within all those kind of tough results, there were always a couple of high points that encouraged me that I was making the right progress. And I think that progress is what just kind of kept me going, OK, let’s see this out a little bit longer, let’s go a little bit more.

And I was really enjoying the lifestyle of it, I was able to start getting sponsors, which allowed me to make it a lifestyle, so it wasn’t a complete sacrifice. I was doing school along the way. It took a lot of convincing of my grandfather over the years, that this was a worthwhile pursuit, because he was supportive of me making the Olympics, but then once I did it was more like, ‘You’ve made the Olympics, now it’s time to finish your degree and become a professional.’ And I had to keep saying, ‘No, I think I can be good at this, I want to keep trying.’

Randall, in her second Olympics, just before the finishing stretch of the classic sprint at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.

And I kept pushing the ski team to develop more of a woman’s team. And I would say — I always had this 10-year projection, which was going to be like the Vancouver Olympics — that by Vancouver, I want to be in a position to win a medal. And even when it was just a few years away, and I still wasn’t even that close, somehow I was able to just stay patient and stay motivated and keep going.And I really think, being able to just pull out those small successes – I kept this Excel spreadsheet of my FIS points of races, and I would put in the FIS points that I got, the time back from the leader, comments about the race. And at the end of every season I could see, like, well maybe the results weren’t that spectacular, but I’m progressing, I’m moving forward. So I used things like that also, to just kind of help keep me pushing forward.

And I just also had this – I don’t know where I got it from, but just kind of this thinking that it was all building. That every year you train, the platform gets stronger and you keep going. And at some point you do hit a tipping point, and you start to break through. And that was so true.

“I just had this thinking that it was all building. That every year you train, the platform gets stronger, and you keep going. And at some point you do hit a tipping point, and you start to break through. And that was so true.”

I would say, prior to 2006, I was starting to wonder, but then in 2006 I had that breakthrough that then carried me another few years before the next breakthrough, and then it just kind of kept going. And now the younger athletes that are coming in – well, we just have such a better system, a better understanding, just the confidence that it’s possible. So I feel like the athletes now don’t have to go through it quite like I did, and have to really go, ‘Can I do this?’

But I had to remind a lot of these girls when they first came on the scene, when they would get their high-flying result and then go back to being in the fifties or whatever, and going, ‘Ah, you know, I’m not successful.’ It’s like, ‘No, this is a long game, and just be focused on making steady progress, and you’ll get there.’ And they have.

Despite this perspective gained through experience, Randall largely demurs when asked now what advice she would impart to a mid-2000s Young Kikkan. Rather, she suggests that the journey itself was important, and that the need to experiment along the way to figure out what worked best helped her with the rest of her career.

We’ve obviously learned a lot now about what’s possible in the realms of training, and kind of what types of training and what experience is the most important, and maybe I knew some of it early on, but a lot of it was experimentation. I maybe could have put myself in a position to be more successful earlier in my career had we known then what we know now – but at the same time, I think it was so important for me to go through that experimentation, and it really maybe helped with the longevity of my career, to have been able to do it this long.

So I would love to go back and have a conversation with Young Kikkan, and just get to hear firsthand the ambition and the thought of what was it gonna be like back then, because you kind of lose that exact memory of what you were feeling back then over the years. But I just think it’s so cool that, despite not knowing, I just had all those ideas, and it would just be so fun to see that now. But I don’t know that I would have a lot of advice, other than just, ‘go for it.’

Randall is asked what she is proudest of, other than results, as she looks back on her career. She immediately identifies as the highlight her role as one of many in contributing to a culture shift in American skiing.

(Randall is perhaps being somewhat modest here; it has been the thesis of several publications, including FasterSkier, Outside Magazine, and Peggy Shinn’s new book, that, while Matt Whitcomb’s coaching was certainly important in bringing about this change, it was Randall’s consistent drive that singlehandedly elevated the level of American skiing, raising expectations and creating a path for others to follow.)

I’m proudest of the culture shift that I think we created in American skiing. The women’s team gets kind of the most attention, and what we’ve been able to do with that, just raising the level of every single person on the team, to a point where we are just so competitive internationally now.

I’m not going to take total credit for that, because I think there were a lot of important things that came together, and Matt Whitcomb’s leadership has been super important in that, but playing a role in helping make that happen is a super-special part of it for me.

Matt Whitcomb with Sadie Bjornsen and Sophie Caldwell in Seefeld, Austria, this winter. (Photo: Garrott Kuzzy / LumiExperiences.com)

And then also seeing the effect it’s had for all of our young skiers – like I said, they’re coming into a world now where just their confidence is so much higher, our understanding of the training is so much better, our support system in Europe and all that’s really well developed. And just kind of helping build that – beyond just the results, I’ve always been interested in how to make our sport better, and so being able to do some leadership on the FIS Athlete Commission, being able to work together with our coaching staff, the U.S. Ski Team staff, to develop more resources, and just make it a better system overall.

And I think that’s why, coming into this fifth Olympics, while I was excited to have another shot at a medal, the medal was not the end goal. It was more about, like, Hey, look how far we’ve come. I could feel incredibly proud of that, I get to be a part of this one more time. So just remembering to take it all in and enjoy it, because it’s almost over.

[Randall is asked whether that, perhaps counterintuitively, made it easier to win a medal.]

Probably, yeah. Because in Sochi, in contrast, I was under so much pressure, both from outside expectations and also from myself, that I was figuring out how to manage it for the first time. I had no one to look to to figure out how to do it, you know, we didn’t have a system created to deal with it. And it was all about the medal, and only about the medal. So this time it was just, like, Yeah, there’s a shot at a medal, we know it’s a possibility, but I’m just happy to be here, and going to take every chance I get to race and make the most of it. And no matter what happens, I can end my career feeling really good about it.

Randall is asked the obvious follow-up question: what she is proudest of from her career among the category of results. Tellingly, her answer to this question is one-half the length of the non-results question that preceded it, and is similarly focused on team accomplishments over individual accolades.

Randall (l) and Bjornsen (second from r) on the podium after taking silver in the World Cup team sprint in Düsseldorf, Germany, in December 2011. (Photo: Kieran Jones)

I mean, that first relay in Gällivare, in 2012 – that one stands out as just such an amazing memory, just because of watching all the team members come together, and what that meant for everybody, and following it up in Lillehammer a year later with another relay podium, those were amazing. Starting to get on the team-sprint podium with Jessie and Sadie, because Sadie and I got on the podium in Düsseldorf, I think in 2011. It’s always the team things that come to mind.

I mean, the individual things were really exciting there for a while, like winning a World Cup, winning the World Championships medal, but the team events have taken precedence far beyond that. So the gold medal from Val di Fiemme five years ago has really been the highlight, and now we just get to add an Olympic gold medal to it.

Speaking of team events, and of gold-medal success, it is worth noting that both international championship golds, Val di Fiemme and PyeongChang, came in team sprints. The symbolism is obvious, almost too perfect for a team that has elevated team above all else. Randall is asked what it means that both those medals came in team events.

I think it’s a greater accomplishment than any individual medal we could have won, because it takes developing a team to be able to make that happen. And our approach on the U.S. Ski Team has always been that there’s such a team aspect. We all just celebrate and know just how much effort it takes from so many individuals to come together. It’s not just the athletes, it’s the coaching staff, it’s the technical staff, it’s the club systems that are supporting us all along. So to win a medal in a team event is just so validating and appropriate because it just represents the work that has collectively happened to bring that medal forward.

And the individual results have been fun too, but like I said, it just means so much more. And it’s so fun to go through the process of winning a championship like that, and you get to share it with somebody. You know, you get to go through, ‘Oh my god, can you believe we’re doing this?’ And you get to be up there, and holding the flag together, and sharing the story from multiple points of view. So I think it’s the best we could have had, because now that can go out and inspire a continuation of this culture we’ve kind of created.

It’s so fun to see your teammates succeed and do well, whether it’s an individual or when we collectively come together and do well. And in cases when I’ve been on the sidelines, been not on the team, and just going out and cheering my teammates on.

And that was what was so amazing about our Olympic gold in PyeongChang is that our entire team was lined up along the fence there. And any one of those girls could have been in our place. It was a really tough decision to decide who the team was going to be, and so the fact that they came out and supported us so hard, when I know it was tough for some of them to not be on the team, but they were able – they knew what an important part they played in making that medal happen, and they were there to celebrate with us. And that just means the world to Jessie and myself.

And finally, speaking of teams, Randall is asked what her domestic team, Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center, has meant to her and her career. The answer reveals the perhaps unexpected role that an Anchorage estate planning attorney played in the development of domestic and international cross-country skiing over the past 20 years… if Randall’s mother had been working somewhere else in spring 1999, then Erik Flora’s program might not have sent 10 athletes to PyeongChang in spring 2018.

It’s fun to look back and think about the fork in the road essentially that I was at at the end of my sophomore year [of high school]. Because up until that point I was on the running track. I wanted to run NCAA Division I, and I was training every December for Foot Locker U.S. Nationals, and it was at the end of my sophomore year that my running coach was moving out of town, and therefore I needed a new training group in the summer.

And it just so happened that my mom was working as an attorney with Trigg Davis, who had happened to become friends with Jim Galanes, and knew that Jim was starting a new program. And he said, ‘Hey, I think Kikkan should meet Jim,’ and then Jim ended up hiring Frode Lillefjell, who was fresh off of his NCAA career, to help start this new program. I was going to join [Alaska] Winter Stars, and I ended up joining APU instead.

Kikkan Randall during a high-school track race in Anchorage, Alaska, in the 1990s. (Photo: KTVA 11 screenshot)

And right away, Frode was a coach that just made you feel like anything was possible and just taught us – it was my first time ever rollerskiing, and he made us doublepole only that first summer, which crushed me at the beginning, but then I got really strong.

Right away, too, Jim was just like, ‘You know, I think U.S. skiers can be successful, but I think we’re going about it in the wrong way. When skiers do NCAA, they just can’t train enough, and we think if you stay in an environment where you can focus on – where training and race experience is the number one goal, and then you fill in school where it fits, we think this can be a new model that can be successful.’

And so, by chance, kind of getting hooked into that system, and then when I graduated from high school, my first goal was to make the Olympics, and then I was going to go to school somewhere else. And then Jim and the coaches at the time were like, ‘Why don’t you consider taking classes at APU, and doing things here?’ And I entertained that idea, and started some classes here in the fall, and within a couple months I realized what a perfect fit it was for me. Because I was interested in the international track. Even though there was no path of success, I just felt like, ‘That’s what I want to try to chase, but I love that I can go to school along the way.’

And so getting pulled into that, and then really being in a such supportive environment, where I had coaching day to day, I had training partners, I had access to the glacier, I had early skiing in the fall, late skiing in the spring, and I got to do it all where I grew up. So I had this amazing support system already in place.

And there was a lot of work that Jim did early on behind the scenes, when the U.S. Ski Team was excited about my results, and wanted me to come and live in Park City, and Jim said, ‘No. She’s got a great system up here, we’re going to keep her here where we know things are working.’ And he advocated and provided that support, and I was able to continue here.

And then when Erik took over the program in 2006, we just kind of kept that going forward. And I’ve always loved the idea of being a part of a team and a club that I can be with when I’m training, and then there was kind of this seamless transition to then go be a part of the national team, and be able to pursue those kinds of races, but always have this connection to APU.

And I’ve loved that it’s – it’s not just a 10-member Elite Team, it’s a community program. I’ve always enjoyed the Masters in the program, who really took the financial burden of supporting the program early on, and still contribute so much. And then of course I was part of the Junior program, which has then developed even further down [to the Devos], and knowing that those kids now get to be in a great program that then has a connection to what’s possible. So it’s been cool, and I’ve been happy to see the program really just develop and flourish, because I just really believed in the concept of it from the start.

Coming next week: ‘The Exit Interview (Part II): Looking Forward’

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Disclosure: The author is an Alaska Pacific University masters skier who grew up in Anchorage in the same generation as Randall; they skied together in Anchorage Junior Nordic in the early 1990s. 

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch is a lifelong Alaskan. He skis with the Alaska Pacific University Masters team in Anchorage, plays with his two adorable daughters, and occasionally works as a solo attorney. He has a cat named Marit. He was probably on snow this year before you were.

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