I've gone back and forth about whether I would want one of my daughters to be like Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall. This week, it's partly yes — but not all the way.
Kikkan is the greatest athlete Alaska ever produced. She changed her sport. She put it on the map for Americans and cleared a path for women to follow her.
She's a terrific person, too. Her organization to encourage tween girls in sports, Fast and Female, has spread all over the country and internationally. My daughter loved it and kept a Kikkan poster on her bedroom wall for years.
As a journalist, I've gotten to see Kikkan grow. My most recent interview airs Thursday on Alaska Public Media. Now that she's retiring from skiing, it's easy to covet her poise and her incredible accomplishments.
But the price to be paid is so high. And the drive — what it takes to become a truly unique elite athlete — that's something a little scary.
Kikkan's dad, Ronn Randall, put her on skis the day after she turned 1. She set the goal of winning an Olympic medal when she was in high school. That goal required her to train hard 11 months a year ever since. Now she's 35.
Train how hard? Too hard for a normal college experience. College students don't get enough training time for the Olympic level. One reason Alaska Pacific University's club has become among the best in the world is the very light class load skiers take while training year-round. Kikkan only graduated last year.
She minimizes the sacrifices. She smiles and says she got to make her living skiing.
But when I interviewed her parents in 2014, her mother, Deborah, told me what it really meant.
"We have a large family and we have a lot of large family gatherings, and she will politely decline coming or she will excuse herself early, because her main priority is her skiing," Deborah said. "You give up your social life. You give up your family life. She's married. She has a husband she hardly ever sees."
She said that when Kikkan would win a race, the family celebrated, but not Kikkan. She had to turn in early to keep her training schedule.
That interview came on the eve of Sochi. Expectations for Kikkan's 2014 Olympics were crushingly high. She had a bad day. She faded and did not make it into the finals in her best event.
But Kikkan said that failure remains one of her proudest days, because when the TV cameras turned toward her, she smiled. A Fast and Female girl later told her that smile taught her a lot — taught her to persevere and be grateful even in defeat. Actually, it could teach everyone something.
Today, Kikkan finds a silver lining in Sochi. The loss kept her in the sport four more years, through the birth of her son, to South Korea, to her fifth Olympics, and the historic gold medal she won in the team relay with Jessie Diggins.
Diggins is the faster skier now. But in an interview immediately after the gold medal race, she disclosed what made her so fast in that incredible last leg, when she surged past one of the world's greatest skiers to win.
She wanted Kikkan to be proud of her.
What does any of this have to do with my daughters?
My life is about being a father to four wonderful kids. In my mind, everything has to do with them. I suspect most parents know what I mean.
You feel so much pride when they graduate from high school or college. Those have been the biggest, most emotional days of my life.
But with the pride, you also feel so much humility. You devote your life to parenthood, think about it all day, every day, try to learn how to do it, eventually feel like a pro, and then the next kid teaches you that you don't know jack.
When they come out OK at the other end, you realize it was on them all along.
All you did was provide the soil and the water. God made the seed and poured down the sunshine from above. And inside that little seed, all the will to grow, the love of life, the drive to fulfill some kind of destiny — you didn't put that there.
I've taken the opportunity over the years to interview many Olympians and their parents. Here's what I've learned.
Outdoor athletes come from outdoor families. Kids learn about the pleasure of being on snow from being on snow and seeing happy faces there.
But no one makes an Olympian. Somewhere along the way, something inside a kid clicks to turn on that irresistible will. The love of the sport is part of it, but there's more than that.
Kikkan described it as the feeling of always getting better. It wasn't the pull of the medal that kept her going all those years, it was the sense of always getting a little faster, a little fitter, of climbing that next hill with slightly less effort than it took the previous year.
She never stopped receiving that amazing reward. Like the tallest sunflower, she never tired of reaching a little higher into the sky.
The parents don't get to feel that. Each Olympic mom I interviewed said the same thing. She missed her kid. She worried. She traveled a long way to see races, watched online, waited all year for visits that would last a few days.
That's the part of parenthood you don't understand until you do it. If you do your job right, the person you love the most is going to leave. And she's not going to understand how that feels until it's her turn.
Kikkan is moving to British Columbia with her husband, Jeff Ellis, and their 2-year-old, Breck. After what she has given Alaska, all we can do is wish her well.
But it will be really interesting to see how that little one grows up.
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