ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Kikkan Randall is approaching a season full of lasts: her final season as a full-time athlete, her final season on the World Cup, and, she hopes, her fifth and final Olympics. Her main focus these days is resolutely on the future, but she took some time earlier this month to speak with FasterSkier about her summer training and what comes next.
Randall’s final summer of training was anchored by the same thing as most of the 17 summers before it: multiple weeklong training camps on Eagle Glacier, the Alaska Pacific University (APU) facility in the Chugach Mountains above Girdwood, Alaska. But this summer saw Randall take only two trips to the glacier, instead of the three camps attended by most of the APU team.
In place of a third glacier camp, Randall traded a short helicopter ride for a long plane flight and traveled to Sweden for a 12-day training camp with the Swedish national team. It was Randall, fellow U.S. Ski Team (USST) member Liz Stephen, and 10 women from the Swedish team, Randall explained in a phone interview.
Randall began her trip with three days in Östersund, Sweden, with Anna Haag and Stephen, who was coming from the Blink rollerski festival in Gjesdal and Sandnes, Norway. Then came three days in Åre with the full Swedish national team, as well as USST Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb. The remaining days of camp were spent with the full Swedish team near Vålådalen. The whole thing made for a “really sweet” 12-day training block, Randall recalled.
American skiers were hardly receiving invitations to train with Scandinavian national teams at the start of Randall’s career, but such exchange programs are now relatively commonplace. This was not Randall or Stephen’s first such trip to Sweden, and Jessie Diggins joined the Norwegian national team for a camp last summer.
“I think it’s also a strong testament to our nation, and our program as a good partner to Norway as well,” Whitcomb previously said about the invitation, as well as speaking highly of both Diggins and the Norwegians.
“We’re all training at a high level now,” Randall says when asked whether she sees similarities or differences between American and Swedish training. “We’re all doing very similar types of training, loads of training.”
But even if the training quality and quantity are comparable, the logistics are different, reflecting the simple fact that the U.S. is more than 20 times larger than Sweden, with top-level skiers spread out across five time zones and thousands of miles.
“The real difference for me and what stands out is just the lifestyle of it,” Randall reflects, “and how the Scandinavians never have to travel more than three or four hours away from home. They get together for camps once every three weeks. They’re in camp but they’re these shorter camps and then they go home. Whereas for us, we have the geographical challenges of so much more travel, that when we get together, we have to get together for longer to make it worthwhile, but that of course changes the exact kind of training we can do within a camp, so that part’s varied a little bit.”
The difference isn’t just academic, but rather bears on the type of training that can be done in a group environment. “This camp we went to was an aggressive training schedule,” Randall notes, “and I don’t think it would be smart to necessarily take that schedule and bring it back to the U.S. and replicate it because just the way we live is a little different.”
Randall found a valuable training stimulus from the camp, and appreciated the chance to “rub elbows with those guys, be like, OK, I may train a little differently, but I’m on track, versus having to wait seven months between race seasons and not knowing where the heck you are.”
But even more than the reality check on training and fitness, she says that it helps to have local friends in Europe when the Americans are on the road and living out of a suitcase for four months at a stretch.
“I think the biggest benefit” of this offseason training exchange “is that we get to know them as people,” Randall notes. “When we’re on the World Cup, then all of a sudden we have these friends on other teams. If we do need a weekend off and want to go to a home, we can go home with them and get a little break or we see them and we go out for jogs together. It’s pretty cool because I’ve developed lifelong friends now and I look forward to continuing to visit beyond just these training years. I think that shared experience is what really makes it special to me.”
The final World Cup season and the Olympics
It’s tough for any American skier to spend that long away from home. But Randall, with husband Jeff Ellis and support from family members on both sides, is upping the logistical ante by bringing along a toddler. The couple’s son, Breck Stuart Randall Ellis, turns 18 months old next month, and will be spending his second winter on the World Cup circuit.
“Our plan is to pack up early November and head over as a family,” Randall says of their approach for the 2017/2018 season. “We’ve got most of the winter figured out. We’ve got a few more apartment-style accommodations lined up this year. We know with a busy year-and-a-half-year-old, it’s going to be a little harder to contain him in a hotel room. We’re trying to set up the best kind of situation for our family.”
Randall and Ellis have most of the winter already dialed in, but there’s still one large hole left in their schedule: PyeongChang. “The challenge we’re really wrestling with right now is with what to do about the Olympics,” Randall notes.
Randall is certain that she wants to have her child with her in South Korea if at all possible. “Ideally I’d have Breck at the Olympics,” she says.
Looking back to the 2017 World Championships, Randall says, “I think that was a really positive force having him with me at Lahti, but it’s looking to be exorbitantly expensive to be able to have him in South Korea nearby. We’re looking for accommodations, figuring out can we possibly afford this, and if not, what are some other options? We don’t have a clear answer on that one yet. Outside of that we’re looking forward to a totally fun winter altogether.”
It’s no secret to any parent that traveling with kids is tough. Alaska parents arguably learn this as well as anyone, just because it’s so darn far to travel anywhere from The Last Frontier. (Figure three hours’ flying time from Anchorage to Seattle alone, in the shortest flight that most Alaska kids ever take. And forget driving; that’s a 2,400-mile roadtrip.) It’s tempting to think that a four- or five-time Olympian would have an easier time of things, but Randall recounts challenges and choices that are relatable to any parent.
“It’s an interesting dilemma,” Randall analyzes, “just thinking about it from all sides, because on one hand, it was my choice to have a baby and with that comes different logistical challenges than when you don’t have children. At the same time, I am a strong contributing member of this team, I hope I can contribute to some Olympic medals, and for me to perform at my best, like I said, it was always a really positive influence to have Breck around while I was competing at the World Championships. It would be awesome if I could be able to have him there with me so that I could be in the right state of mind and perform really well. It’s, ‘Do I need to shoulder all the cost myself or can I get some support from the [United States Olympic Committee] or from the U.S. Ski Team?’ At this point it’s going to be fairly challenging to make it happen on our own.”
Complicating matters for anyone who hopes to stay outside of official athlete housing, as of this spring the PyeongChang area was reportedly facing a severe shortage of Olympic accommodations. These problems had not been alleviated as of earlier this month.
Skiing and parenting
Randall speaks candidly about the tradeoffs of doing her job effectively versus being available to her child, a balancing act instantly familiar to any parent. Breck was not with her in Sweden for last month’s 12-day training camp; Randall and Ellis “felt like that wasn’t a super-long stint,” and Breck was able to stay with Ellis and grandparents in Canada while Randall focused on training in Sweden. Randall was also solo at spring camp in Bend (also 12 days), and at each of the two Eagle Glacier camps (6–7 days each).
“It has actually been a pretty challenging summer,” Randall notes. “I’ve had to be away from him a lot more than I had to be last year. I think I’m willing to do this now because I know it’s my last season. I can’t imagine doing it really any longer.”
She continues, “I’m glad he’ll be with me most of the winter and in Park City [at a USST training camp next month], because it’s getting tougher and tougher to be away, even though it’s nice for training and recovery and sleep and rest. I definitely miss him.”
If athletic training is, generally, a balancing act, then training while parenting is a balancing act while riding a unicycle backwards and juggling flaming knives. If those knives could at any moment start having a meltdown because they couldn’t find their preferred socks or a favorite toy. (Good thing Randall knows how to ride a unicycle.) Choosing between having your child be with you or with a supportive spouse is one such tradeoff. Choosing between more effective recovery and more effective parenting is another such tradeoff, one that Randall has to negotiate at least twice a day as a parent and an athlete.
“The hardest part for me,” Randall analyzes, “is when I’m tired and I come home [from training] and I know that the most productive thing for me is to recover, take a nap, get some time off my feet, to make the next workout effective and do my job, in a sense. But I also have this little boy who wants my attention and I love spending time with him, and it’s been a challenge this summer to navigate that and find a happy medium. I think some days I end up being more of a mom and some days I can, with the support of my husband and my parents, I can be a focused athlete.”
Randall and Ellis have made it work for a year, but Randall doesn’t want to have to make those choices much longer. “Like I said, I can wrap my mind around doing this one more year to make a final push at this Olympics, but that’s why I can’t think about doing it any longer, because I want to be able to not have that dilemma anymore.”
(Randall perceptively acknowledges that this dilemma never really goes away: “I know that while I look forward to not having the restrictions of a ski racer’s life for my family next year, I know that there’ll be, getting back to a more normal life of a job and wanting to fit in training and family and how all that’s going to work. I think it’s an issue a lot of parents face.”)
Randall remains committed to her goals for this season, and is working hard to achieve them. But she has also begun to think about what happens next.
So what to do following a nearly two-decade career as a professional athlete? Get involved in athlete representation, of course.
Randall is one of six athletes currently running for two open spots on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Athletes’ Commission, a representative body established in 1981 for the purpose of representing athletes and their concerns within the IOC context. The commission’s mission is “to ensure that the athletes’ viewpoint remains at the heart of the Olympic Movement decisions,” says its website.
Elections will be held in February 2018 during the Olympics.
Randall has spent many years as a cross-country representative to the FIS Athletes’ Commission, which plays a comparable role relative to the International Ski Federation (FIS), but has not previously served on the IOC commission.
“Why do you want to do this?” Randall is asked.
“That’s a good question,” she replies. “Because it is an eight-year commitment. … I definitely asked myself if I want to go from being committed to a ski racer’s life, finally be retired from competition, and then go right into another eight-year commitment, but I really have enjoyed the athlete representation work I’ve done over the last eight years. I think to take that experience and expand it to the IOC level would just be really interesting.”
Randall has a politician’s poise as she explains why she wants to continue her involvement with the Olympics: “I think now is a great time to get involved and help strengthen the Olympic movement, get it back to a point where it’s being a good force in the world, because I want to see the Olympics still be important for my children, still be important for your children,” she tells a FasterSkier reporter who is also a parent. “I don’t want to see the Olympics go away. I’m hoping I can blend my experience having been an athlete at four Olympics, hopefully number five coming up, and then also having worked on the other side, representing the athletes, being in the business side of the sport, and I just think it would be a really cool way to stay involved.”
But she also seems authentically committed when she talks about the potential of the Olympics as a force for good.
“Bringing the world together every two years for an Olympic Games just creates so much goodwill amongst our global community and it inspires everybody to really find the best in themselves in a fair and clean way, which I think is really good for humanity.”
As noted, there are six Winter Olympics athletes in the running for two open spots on the Athletes’ Commission. The other five candidates are Spanish skeleton racer Ander Mirambell, Finnish hockey player Emma Terho, Chinese long-track speedskater Zhang Hong, Italian luger Armin (“Il Cannibale”) Zöggeler, and Norwegian cross-country skier Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen.
Randall does not reject a suggestion that the presence of both her and Jacobsen could to some extent split the “Nordic vote.”
“By having two cross-country skiers in the mix, it does have the potential to dilute the vote,” she notes. But she continues, “I think you can also look at it as we now have two ponies in the race. Both of us in the election and there’s probably a better chance that a cross-country athlete will make it to the IOC Commission. That’s good odds.”
Randall is quick to call Jacobsen, with whom she has previously trained on Eagle Glacier as an invited guest of the North American Women’s Training Alliance, an “accomplished person,” who “put a lot of thought into taking on this role.” But she diplomatically notes that Jacobsen “is coming from one side of getting involved in the athlete representation side, at least in an international way, for the first time. I’m coming from the side where I’ve been involved. It’ll just be interesting where people land on who they want to put forward.”
What comes next: Retirement and Canada
First things first, Randall officially plans to retire after this season. “I haven’t done an official press release,” she notes, “but I’ve definitely talked about it to plenty of people. Most people know that’s my plan.”
That leaves Randall and her family (Ellis has spent the past five years working as marketing support manager for the World Cup, but would presumably no longer want to spend all winter in Europe without his wife and son) needing jobs, and a place to do them.
What she’ll be doing next year is “also a very good question,” Randall says. “We’ve been talking about that as a family for a while.”
Randall notes that Ellis “has been very supportive,” pointing out that he moved to Alaska 10 years ago for her sake and has supported her once he retired from his own ski career. “We’ve always talked about once I retire from skiing to be open to chasing some career opportunities for him,” Randall notes. “He’s Canadian; maybe that meant moving to Canada and experiencing that for a while.”
The couple were exploring their options this spring when “an opportunity fell into our lap”: Ellis was invited to apply for a job with Swagman, a bike rack company based in Penctiton, British Columbia, about a four-hour drive east of Vancouver.
“It was total long shot because they were looking to fill the position in April of this year,” Randall notes. But Ellis applied anyway, “just to see what would happen.” He got the job. They were willing to hold it open for him for roughly a year, till April 2018, if he would be willing to move there. Penctiton it is for the Randall–Ellis family.
(Ellis was born in Orangeville, Ontario, and is a Canadian citizen. As the child of an American and a Canadian, Breck has dual citizenship. Randall is working on the immigration paperwork to gain legal residency in Canada as the spouse of a Canadian national.)
While Ellis works for Swagman, as well as parenting, Randall will be pursuing at least two other projects, as well as parenting.
For one, she wants to be able to devote more attention to Fast and Female, a nonprofit sports advocacy group that, its website explains, aims at “keeping girls healthy, happy and active in sports through their teens by introducing them to inspiring athlete role models.” (You may have seen one of their Champ Chats in a ski community near you, particularly if you are the parent of a preteen or young teenager girl.) Randall is the U.S. leader of an international organization that was founded by Canadian skier Chandra Crawford in 2005.
“We’ve kept the U.S. side in a maintenance mode for the last few years,” Randall notes of Fast and Female, “since my time’s been limited, but since now that I can work on it more full time, I look forward to helping grow the U.S. organization maybe to the level that they’ve been operating in Canada. That’s a project on the horizon, depending on how this IOC athletes’ election goes. Should I get that position, that’s going to be a commitment. I want to be able to be flexible around that.”
And for another, she plans to finally get that degree. Randall graduated summa cum laude from East Anchorage High School in 2001 [around the time of the below throwback photo], then has been working on her undergraduate degree in business from Alaska Pacific University (the school, not the ski team) ever since.
Randall has three classes left at this point. She plans to combine that with a flexible MBA program that recognizes the value of work experience, and to graduate from APU, with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in hand, by 2019.
Randall will attend the APU classes through a mix of online learning and intensive class blocks held in Anchorage. She looks forward to staying involved with the Anchorage and APU ski communities, and hopes that the MBA program “kind of creates a blend, allows me to move on to our next step … but also keeps me connected” with Anchorage as she goes through this period of transition.
Looking back and looking ahead (mostly just ahead)
But Randall has a lot of things to get through first in the next six months: her last Park City camp, her last World Cup season opener, (presumably) her last Olympics, her last World Cup race, and so on.
She’s spending much more energy these days training hard than stopping and reflecting, though the significance of some of these “lasts” isn’t lost on her. “I’ve got big goals I’m working towards this year,” she says. “I have my head down a lot of the time working toward that. Though when I was leaving the glacier, knowing it was the last camp, it hit me a little bit.”
But then she adds, “I really do want to take this year in, enjoy it, of course, leave everything I have on the table. I think I have a good perspective now. I got a little practice run the year I was pregnant because I stepped away from the racing season and I got to really appreciate what I love about racing and about training and about my team. This last two years, I think it’s given me the perspective to slow down a little bit and enjoy it because it will be over before we know it.”
Bottom line, Randall says, “Everything I love to do I get to do one more time, and everything that has been hard and maybe I don’t love doing, I only have to do it one more time.”
Randall made this final comment while driving back from the day’s first workout on a blustery and raw Tuesday in September. She made no mention of the weather, but it was a day when the first big fall storm of the season was rolling out of the Gulf of Alaska; a cold rain fell all day, temperatures stayed in the 40s, and the local paper warned of winds gusting to 45 miles per hour, nearly twice that in the mountains. Going back to her freshman year of high school, Randall has trained through the last 21 Alaska autumns.