As Kikkan Randall chases Olympic gold, she hopes to make nordic skiing cool

bbragg@adn.comFebruary 8, 2014 

  • Watch Live
    Kikkan Randall will compete in her specialty, the women's freestyle sprint, early Tuesday morning, Alaska time.
    1 a.m. -- Preliminary qualification
    3 a.m. -- Quarterfinals
    3:56 a.m. -- Semifinals
    4:22 a.m. -- Finals
    To watch it live: Go to nbcolympics.com for livestream coverage. You'll need a GCI or some other pay-TV account in order to watch. If you're a GCI customer and don't have a user profile, give yourself enough time before the race starts to create one before the race starts. A few minutes should be enough; be sure to have your account number.

Kikkan Randall is chasing gold at the Winter Olympics not just because an Olympic medal is the only thing lacking from her resume.

She is doing it to make cross-country skiing cool.

Here in Alaska, she has already succeeded.

Randall, 31, is the woman we see around town with pink hair, perfect teeth, washboard abs and muscles to die for.

She is the special guest at elementary schools who enthralls kids with her own brand of show-and-tell -- she tells them to get active, then she shows them how much fun that can be, sometimes by riding a unicycle.

She is the backbone of the U.S. chapter of Fast and Female, a group that aims to empower girls and young women through sports.

She is the voice we have heard and the face we have seen for years on local commercials -- Matanuska Maid, Continental Motors, Healthy Futures and more.

She is the name bannered in headlines, sometimes week after week after week. Two-time World Cup sprint champion. Two-time World Championship medalist. Thirteen World Cup victories. Thirty World Cup podium appearances. Four Olympics.

While Anchorage doesn't really need a Pied Piper of nordic skiing -- the sport has long flourished here -- Randall figures the rest of the country does. And she figures the Sochi Olympics are the perfect place to show America there is nothing staid or boring about cross-country ski racing.

"For her, it's more than about what she's accomplished and what she's won," said Luke Bodensteiner, executive vice president of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.

"She's determined to change the face of her sport in this country forever, and she's doing it through youth outreach, and she's doing it by supporting her teammates around her and (lifting them) to their best.

"She is a true leader."

She's also the right woman in the right race at the right time.

Randall's specialty is the sprint, an event introduced at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics -- the Games where Randall made her Olympic debut.

Held on a short course -- less than two kilometers, sometimes less than 1.5 kilometers -- much of the action can be seen from the stadium. The sprint is not an event where skiers disappear into the woods and return 30 minutes later.

The sprint is an all-day affair that begins in the morning with preliminaries, in which each skier races alone, against the clock. The fastest ones advance to what's known as the heats -- quarterfinal heats, semifinal heats, finals.

The racing is head-to-head in the heats, and it can be combative. Tangles and crashes are always a possibility. If nordic skiing ever makes it to the X Games, it will be because of the sprint.

Randall's personality is perfect for the heats -- long ago, she nicknamed herself Kikkanimal, a name that suits the ferocity she displays in competition -- and she thrives in the head-to-heat format.

Winning an Olympic medal could make Randall a household name, at least temporarily. Winning one in an event that defies the image many Americans have of nordic skiing could transform the sport permanently.

Randall has already started the process with her continued, unprecedented success in the last several years. She spent much of her off-season last year doing interviews and filming commercials, and now that the Olympics are here, the spots are getting air-time and the Lower 48 is getting to know her.

"It's really cool to finally see cross-country get on the map and have people get interested," Randall said. "This is a great opportunity to showcase our sport."

Much is being made about the possibility of Randall becoming the first American woman and the second American to win an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing (Vermont's Bill Koch won silver in 1976). The fact is, she's not the only American medal contender in Sochi, and that's in large part because of her influence on the U.S. Ski Team.

As Bodensteiner said, Randall has lifted her teammates to such heights that the U.S. women are a threat to medal in the relay, and some are poised to excel individually as well. On Saturday, Minnesota's Jessie Diggins and Vermont's Liz Stephen finished eighth and 12th, respectively, in the 15-kilometer pursuit, the first time in history the United States has put two women in the top 15 of an Olympic race.

"She's kind of set a wonderful tone," teammate Holly Brooks, a two-time Olympian from Anchorage, said earlier this season. "She doesn't act like she's a superstar and we're all underneath her. She's one of those people who is sometimes willing to change what she would do individually in order to work out with the team."

Sochi represents a bit of a crossroads for Randall, who once thought the 2014 Olympics would be the perfect time to end her racing career.

"I always thought by 2014 I would have done everything I wanted to do and be ready to move on," said Randall, who married Jeff Ellis, a former member of Canada's ski team, in 2008. "What I didn't realize is it takes so much hard work, and I'm finally at the fun part.

"I do want to start a family at some point, so I'm excited about that. I'd like to start a family and keep racing. Not many have done that, but there are a few."

A world-champion skier with a baby on board. How cool is that?

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

Following Kikkan

Kikkan Randall will compete in her specialty, the women's freestyle sprint, early Tuesday morning, Alaska time.

1 a.m.: Preliminary qualification

3 a.m.: Quarterfinals

3:56 a.m.: Semifinals

4:22 a.m.: Finals

To watch it live: Go to nbcolympics.com for livestream coverage. You'll need a GCI or some other pay-TV account to watch. If you're a GCI customer and don't have a user profile, give yourself enough time before the race starts to create one. A few minutes should be enough; be sure to have your account number.

 

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