Kikkan Randall, groggy and sick, passed her Olympic gold medal through the airport security scanner as she returned to her family in British Columbia in October. Winning it seven months earlier seemed a lifetime ago.
Randall had been slow to fall asleep the night before, suspended by medicine-induced hot flashes and recurring, unpleasant thoughts. At a coffee stand before boarding her plane, she was brief with a fan. Her stomach tumbled.
This was Randall’s harshest chemotherapy aftermath yet. Seated on the plane, she covered her mouth with a mask, folded her body forward on her tray table, and closed her eyes. Reading lights reflected off her bald head.
In Penticton, her toddler was also miserable. Breck, 2, was in the grip of an ugly cold. Randall’s husband, Jeff Ellis, had planned for a walk outside their hillside home in southcentral British Columbia, but Breck wasn’t having it. He was nearly inconsolable when they loaded him into the minivan for a soothing fall drive instead.
This is a family constantly recalibrating.
Randall held her son’s hand as Ellis drove the minivan across the bucolic countryside of vineyards and orchards. They moved here weeks after Randall’s final race, but six months later, preoccupied with her cancer, there were still many roads unexplored and experiences on hold.
The home team
Ellis had spent much of Randall’s skiing career standing just off camera. They relocated to Penticton, B.C., in his home country, to start his new career. But two months into a marketing job for a bike rack manufacturer, he quit to turn his full attention to his wife’s post-race opportunities.
Before the cancer, Ellis had no interest in that work, but when she began focusing on her health, he felt he could be the point person to create new partnerships, pitch ideas and respond to emails that might otherwise fall through the cracks.
They had sacrificed to earn Randall’s success, working side by side, since they married. Now Ellis intended to maintain Randall’s relevancy while she faced cancer.
Randall and Ellis met in Maine, on the final race weekend of the 2006 season. He won the men’s sprint and she won the women’s.
Before they parted ways, Randall wrote down her email address and invited him to stay in touch. In 2007, the couple met in Calgary and drove to Alaska to be together. That August, as they stood on a boulder at Rabbit Lake in Chugach State Park, Ellis pulled a ring from his pocket.
In the years that followed, Randall’s skiing career took off overseas. Ellis competed in North America, hoping to make the Vancouver Winter Olympics. He said he came close, but his results were too inconsistent. The 2010 season was his last.
The next fall, Randall left for the five-month racing circuit overseas, but Ellis didn’t have a plan.
“I was panicking,” he said. “I was like, ‘I’m 33 years old. I’m not an expert at anything. I need to do something.’ ”
In 2012, he took a job to be with Randall during her competition season. The International Ski Federation, the governing body for the World Cup, hired him to handle marketing and communications. He became one of four on-site coordinators for the dozens of races the federation oversees.
He enjoyed the job, although he was often the first person an athlete would lock eyes with if they had a gripe. Being full-time with Randall could be complicated, too, on days she was racing.
“I had to keep working, even when it went bad,” Ellis said. “You just knew that you were going home to that bad feeling, and you’re going to have to play positive mental coach before the next one. So, it was like a second job.”
Randall’s most famous defeat came in 2014, at the Sochi Olympics, when she failed to advance to the finals of a freestyle sprint she had been favored to win. Ellis was relieved of his duties by a colleague for a moment to comfort her.
“I don’t know if I spoke,” he recalled.
At this year’s Olympics in Pyeongchang, when Randall skied poorly in the skiathlon, Ellis said those feelings returned.
“I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ ” he said.
But 11 days later, she won the gold medal in the team sprint race.
Ellis watched from between two TV cameras. He hugged a colleague, indulged in a quick fist pump, and got back to work. He was with Randall only for moments before she was swept away for interviews and he didn’t see her again until the medal ceremony the following day.
Expectations on hold
When they moved to B.C., Randall and Ellis bought the minivan to be ready for a larger family. She hoped to be pregnant with a second child within months. But her cancer diagnosis threatened that plan. Chemotherapy can cause infertility.
Within a week, Randall consulted with a Seattle fertility clinic about saving embryos. She would have just one chance for egg retrieval before chemotherapy was set to begin.
Nine eggs were removed in June, but only six were deemed viable. Embryos were created from five of the six, but only three survived the first week. After chromosomal testing, two were determined likely to end in miscarriage.
One embryo remains in frozen storage in Seattle.
Randall’s retirement coincided with Ellis’ desire for change, but he said there was something familiar about their life together as she went through cancer treatment.
“She’s gone all the time, she can’t get sick, she’s got to rest. It’s just like having an extended World Cup season,” he said.
“But I’d rather race,” Randall said, reclining in the living room, fading from exhaustion.
Ellis decided to quit his job in June, on a long drive back to Anchorage. It was a bold move in uncertain times, but one he said felt right. He’d been Randall’s adviser since they met and she needed him now as much as ever. And the medal she had earned would only have impact with the public for so long.
“When you can speak as an Olympic gold medalist that had cancer, then you can reach a lot more people and make a much bigger difference,” Ellis said.
As Randall’s cancer fight wore on, she said it was difficult to put into words what Ellis has contributed. His was the voice of calm, the attitude that made it all seem manageable when her thoughts began to spiral.
Randall, who still had some bags unpacked from Pyeongchang in a closet and bins full of race mementos stacked in the garage, felt some guilt about it.
“I know that the last eight years really centered on what I needed as an athlete, and he put a lot of his wishes and interests and things on hold to support me. And then something happens with me that puts me right back in the focus again,” she said.
“Jeff never complains. He never questioned it.”
In October, the family of three sat down to its first Canadian Thanksgiving dinner. Randall had looked forward to spending holidays in her own home when she was racing. She had missed many while overseas.
This meal included deli slices of turkey, cranberry sauce shaped like the can it plopped out of, and stuffing from a boxed mix. It wasn’t exactly what she had in mind, but it was a start.
She smiled at Ellis before picking slowly at her food, still affected by chemo-induced nausea. Ellis raised a glass and toasted to better health in the coming year.
Upcoming: Pink and gold: Kikkan Randall’s new perspective after a tumultuous year