Kikkan Randall stood on the concrete platform of Anchorage’s Town Square and looked out at the faces of her hometown. On a Wednesday afternoon in early April, this mountaintop view capped her 20-year journey as an athlete.
She saw her family sprinkled in the crowd. Her son sat on her husband’s shoulders. Her dad held up an oversized picture of her. At her feet, children looked up, just as she had gazed on her own Olympic heroes as a girl.
She was already one of the most recognized and respected athletes in Alaska history. As a gold medalist and a mother, she was starting a new life.
That life would last 39 days from that April afternoon. And then a new journey would begin for Randall. A cancer journey that would remake how she was seen and how she saw herself.
Anchorage had followed every step of Randall’s skiing career. In the months that followed, she also shared the intimate moments of her difficult cancer year with the Anchorage Daily News.
The story begins in Town Square, with Randall’s skiing teammates at her side, Olympians in their own right. She had insisted they also be recognized.
But the crowd had come to see her. She had won a historic gold medal at the Winter Olympics six weeks earlier, the first in her sport for an American. It felt like it was their medal too.
“Kikkan, to come back wearing that hefty gold around your neck, you wear it with pride,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, on the steps with Randall. “But know that as Alaskans, we wear it with you.”
Randall first drew attention as a teen at Anchorage’s East High School. She joined an Olympic-minded ski training program as a sophomore and made her first Olympics in 2002, at age 19.
Randall’s accomplishments were bar-setting in a sport close to Alaska’s heart. She became the most accomplished American cross-country skier long before she won Olympic gold.
In Rybinsk, Russia, in 2007, she became the first American woman to win an International Ski Federation World Cup race since former Alaska Methodist University skier Alison Owen did it 29 years prior. In the years that followed, Randall did it 12 more times.
In 2012, she became the first and only American woman to win the World Cup season sprint title. She repeated the feat in 2013 and 2014. Three times she has earned medals at the biennial Nordic World Ski Championships.
Arriving in Pyeongchang, South Korea, last winter, she became a five-time Olympian.
Many Alaskans stayed awake in the middle of a February night to watch Randall in what would be the final race of her last Olympics. She was no longer the U.S. team’s fastest sprinter, but coaches chose her to join the team’s rising star, Jessie Diggins of Minnesota, in the two-person team sprint event.
Randall’s 18th Olympic start pitted her against the sport’s titans, including Norway’s Marit Bjoergen, the winningest athlete in Winter Olympics history.
Randall held them apace, even on the course’s punishing climbs.
“As the hill got steeper, I actually felt stronger and stronger,” Randall said.
When she tagged Diggins for the third and final time, the American team was in position to medal. Diggins detonated from the final turn and, in an electric finish that became one of the most replayed moments of the games, lunged her boot forward to win by .19 seconds.
Randall screamed. She and Diggins joyfully danced on top of the podium. America watched as they received the nation’s first Olympic gold ever in cross country skiing.
She finally made it home to Anchorage, after finishing her final season, six weeks later.
“It’s been a fairy-tale ending to an amazing journey,” she told the crowd in Town Square. "And now that my career is coming to a close, I can’t wait to see what this next generation is going to do, because they know it’s possible.”
Randall stayed until the crowd dissipated, the folding chairs were racked, and her ungloved fingers were cold — until everyone who wanted to inspect her medal or pose for a picture had a chance.
Anchorage farewells took weeks, with public appearances and intense moments thanking friends and sponsors. When it was over, Randall moved to Penticton, British Columbia, with her husband, Jeff Ellis, and 2-year-old son, Breck.
She found herself alone with her family, sitting on lawn chairs in their living room as they furnished their new home, starting afresh and ready to begin new rhythms of life.
“I did start to realize how different it was going to be, and how there was going to be some challenge to figure out a new purpose,” she said.
But the joys of family time were immediate. On Mother’s Day, sunny and warm, Randall awoke to flowers and a card. She hiked with Ellis and Breck out their back door into hills that were purple with blooming wildflowers. They bought a children’s swimming pool for their son and a grill for the backyard.
“It felt like we were going to be able to settle in,” Ellis said.
That evening, after the couple put their son to bed, Randall prepared for sleep. As she changed clothes, she felt a hardness in the tissue of her right breast. At first she thought it might be part of a rib bone. Upon further inspection, it felt like two peas.
Before the day could end in the calm that it began with, her mind and mood twisted and turned. It’s probably nothing, she told herself. She remembered a friend who had once found a benign growth.
But she couldn’t shake a sinking feeling in the back of her mind before falling asleep.
She said, “Jeff, am I crazy or does this feel like something?”