Randall has goal for Sochi, and beyond
Properly applying wax to cross-country skis under ever-changing snow conditions and temperatures is crucial in the sport. Miscalculations can be devastating.
It's a science, and thus the Norwegian cross-country team travels with the equivalent of a mobile NASA laboratory. When their team buses pull in for a meet, so many wax technicians emerge from the doors that U.S. Olympian Kikkan Randall says, "It seems like they're coming out of a clown car."
Fellow American Kris Freeman says that's a good description except for one thing: "A clown car isn't big." The Norwegian buses are.
"When the Norwegians roll into town they have two huge wax buses," Freeman says. "One is a double-decker with decks and 25 ski technicians. Then they have a second waxing bus. They're the only country that travels with two waxing buses. They have 30 technicians there and they immediately are testing, and they've got their flags everywhere.
"We have a single cargo van and we set up in the supply waxing room from the race organizers and staple stuff to the walls to hold our skis up. And our wax team does the best they can."
This difference is because cross-country skiing barely registers on the sports radar in the United States, but is Norway's national pastime. Their top skiers, such as Petter Northug, are national heroes who grace cereal boxes; and the team, not surprisingly, is very well-funded.
Only one American skier has ever won an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing and that was Bill Koch at the 1976 Innsbruck Games 38 very long years ago. That drought could finally end at the Sochi Olympics thanks to a pink-haired, four-time Olympian nicknamed "Kikkanimal" who appears in a commercial as a caped superhero and occasionally carries bear spray for protection during long training runs outside her Anchorage, Alaska, home.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Kikkan Randall. She is a two-time world sprint champion with 11 World Cup victories (including two this month) and is determined to add an Olympic medal to that résumé.
"What Kikkan has done is really remarkable," Freeman says. "At this point, a medal for her at the Olympics is hers to lose. She is really dominant in the free style sprint event, and I think barring an accident, it's going to happen and that's really exciting."
The niece of former Olympic cross-country skiers Betsy and Chris Haines, Randall, 31, grew up dreaming of skiing to an Olympic gold medal. Only she dreamed of winning on downhill skis, not cross-country skis.
"All through sixth, seventh and eighth grades, I was into Alpine racing and that was when Tommy Moe was successful and when Picabo Street was dominant," she says. "I wanted to be just like those guys. My real dreams were in Alpine skiing, I wanted to be an Alpine skier. I really thought that's what I would try to make the Olympics in."
Randall was so good in Alpine that she won several Alaska state speed competitions. But then she started getting into cross-country running -- she was a three-time Alaska state champ in the sport -- and that led to cross-country skiing. And then she discovered she liked that sport and its culture more.
"I always loved the speed of going downhill," she says, "but I liked the challenge of going up as well."
You need that attitude for cross-country in this country, where there are not the substantial financial rewards and sponsorships there are for Scandinavian skiers. You do not often find cross-country skiers on Wheaties boxes.
To help make ends meet before she began receiving some sponsor endorsements, Randall used to work part time at an Anchorage running shoe store. That meant she would train in the morning, wolf down a sandwich, wait on shoe store customers much of the day, then go home and train some more after that. It was grueling and not necessarily the best approach.
"The amount of training you have to do and the amount of energy you have to expend during the day doesn't leave a whole lot of time or energy to work a part-time job," Randall says. "And yet, we eat a lot. We need resources like massage and special equipment and travel, and we're spending the better part of the year over in Europe where things aren't cheap."
Not cheap? Try around $50,000 in travel, lodging, meals and assorted expenses for a World Cup season. To stretch the thin budget, both the U.S. women and men are doing most of their own cooking this season.
"It's a little bit of a different challenge in the U.S. where we don't have that deep of support as in Europe," says Randall's coach, Erik Flora. "The skiers' counterparts in Europe have sponsors. Kikkan was on the other side of that -- she had to make her way every step. She worked at a local running store. There were probably some benefits to that, as well as the challenge of being able to learn to manage her time.
"That's definitely a further step that we have to make here than our counterparts do."
Prior to the 2006 Games in Torino, Randall decided that, to maximize her training, she had to leave the shoe store job and get by on her savings and the support of family. She did so even though the U.S. Ski Team had cut the women's cross-country program and development team that year. But thanks to the support of her family and the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center, her decision paid off with a strong season and a ninth-place finish in the sprint -- the highest ever by a U.S. woman.
"It gave me incentive to fight back and show U.S. Skiing needed a women's team," Randall says. "Sometimes those things make you stronger, you get more motivated. That next year I wasn't on the team, I got top 10 at the Olympics and top 5 in a World Cup, which were huge breakthrough results. And the next year, I was named to the national team and it really made me feel good because I had really earned the results."
Randall finished eighth in the sprint at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and has improved markedly in the years since. She won World Cup overall titles in sprint in 2012 and 2013, and also finished third in the overall WC standings last year after winning five races. She is currently second in the World Cup sprint standings this season. (She also has sponsorships ranging from Subway to Alaska Seafood and Kashi.)
The improvement, Flora says, was ramping up her training by nearly a third.
"When I first started working with her, she had success. She was a very talented, incredibly hard-working athlete and we increased her training load substantially," Flora says. "It took maybe a couple years to soak in. Her jump was basically from better training that was more in line with world-class training. She just absorbed it and just made these big steps and ever since has been making one big step forward every year."
Randall isn't alone. She is one of several Olympians training at the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center, including Holly Brooks, Sadie Bjornsen and Erik Bjornsen. U.S. cross-country is improving nationally as well, reflecting a crucial change of approach to the national team that has turned the U.S. into a medal contender.
Flora came up as an athlete in the 1990s when elite American cross-country skiers were frustrated and wondering how they would win at the international level, especially against those darn Norwegians.
"We were kind of fighting our way through, and thinking, 'How can we do this? How can we do this?'" Flora recalls. "There was a feeling it was almost impossible, that there was something missing, something that the athletes in the U.S. didn't have. But we could not put our finger on it."
To find the secret, Flora skied in Norway for a year in the early '90s. One of his best friends at the time was Tor Arne Hetland, who wound up winning a gold medal at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Having skied with Hetland, Flora says he realized in Salt Lake that the difference between the two of them -- and between American and Norwegian skiers -- came down mostly to preparation. "There was nothing special about what he was doing," Flora says. "It was just the preparation was at a higher level."
Improving that preparation meant changing the national approach toward cross-country skiing. "If Norway can do it, we can do it," Flora says, "but maybe we had to do it our way."
Previously, the U.S. cross-country program took a centralized approach by bringing skiers from around the country together where they could work under one coach.
"It was like you had just gotten into your rhythm of what was working and then you take the athlete out of the system," Randall says. "Not only do you put the athlete in a foreign environment, all that work that local team invested and put in was lost."
Now, the emphasis is on keeping skiers with local clubs, such as APU Nordic Ski Center, that provide support, training and coaching.
"We're a diverse country. We're a lot bigger than Norway or Sweden," Randall says. "We have athletes who are developing all over the country, so instead of plucking them out of their systems that are working and putting them in a foreign environment, we've really created this system of cooperation where I can grow up in Alaska and I can be supported there and the coach I work with up there works with the national team.
"We all still work together as a team, but I can live at home in Alaska and continue to work in a great system and [fellow cross-country skier] Jessie Diggins can do the same in the Midwest, so there is more of a development pipeline."
Randall and Diggins won a World Cup team sprint race last year in Quebec and team sprint event at the world championships. Sophie Caldwell is 10th in the World Cup sprint standings this season, while Diggins is 17th. Randall, Elizabeth Steven and Diggins are 10th, 15th and 16th in the overall World Cup standings.
"The story about the U.S. ladies making this big surge, it's kind of the right people at the right time," Flora says. "Kikkan is an incredible catalyst for this change. She has pretty much the perfect personality, the right talents, the right work ethic and she grew up in the right place in Anchorage."
Training around and outside of Anchorage can be a little different than it is for Olympians in other communities. For instance, Michael Phelps rarely has to swim in a shark cage. Randall, on the other hand ...
"We're used to seeing a lot of moose out there, but the bears can be particularly problematic," Randall says. "If you surprise them or if they're protecting a cub or a moose kill, you can be in a pretty dangerous situation very quick. The bear bells let them know we're coming. Occasionally, when we're on a really long run, we bring some bear spray with us.
"That's really something you don't encounter in other places you train. Alaska is kind of unique that way."
Randall is little known around the United States, but she is very popular with European ski fans and famous in Anchorage, where cross-country skiing is a very big deal. Her image is splashed across billboards on its city buses and she can be heard and seen in commercials, such as this one in which she is an animated superhero for Subway. She is heavily involved in several organizations, including Healthy Futures and Fast and Female, programs that encourage kids and teens to get outside and pursue an active, healthy lifestyle, and girls to empower themselves through sport.
"If you're from Anchorage and you don't know who Kikkan Randall is, then you haven't turned on the TV," says longtime friend and APU juniors co-coach Charlie Renfro.
Randall is married to Jeff Ellis, a former Canadian hurdler and ski racer who works for the International Ski Federation (FIS) to market cross-country. Ellis' LinkedIn profile photo shows him carrying his wife on his shoulders and he once interviewed her for a video after a win by asking, "I hear you have a very good-looking Canadian husband."
It's a good combination since Randall also wants to grow the sport's popularity here. She hopes a medal not only would end the long U.S. drought, but that it would also get more Americans on cross-country skis, just as so many Norwegians already are.
"Not everyone can toss themselves off a ski jump. Not everyone can hurtle themselves down an ice sheet at 80 miles an hour. But everybody can try cross-country skiing," she says. "And when they do, they find out, 'Wow, this keeps me in good shape and I can enjoy this with my family and I get to enjoy the outdoors, the same as with running or biking.' That's one of our goals.
"We've experienced firsthand the great feelings you get from being in the sport. So if we can use our pedestal as athletes in the Olympics to inspire others to go out and try it for the first time and get healthy and active, that's just a great opportunity."
Cross-country does not get much airtime, even during the Olympics, which is a shame. It can be a very exciting sport, often ending with the skiers so spent and exhausted that they collapse to the ground immediately after crossing the finish line. There is strategy and backstories, and the races can be every bit as gripping as the dramatic 10,000-meter race at the 2012 Olympics, when Mo Farah edged out American Galen Rupp.
Americans love winners, though, so what the sport needs mostly for national attention here is for another U.S. skier to join Bill Koch on the medal chart.
"Bill Koch is almost like a myth or a legend for us," Randall says. "I've never had the chance to personally meet him, but I've always been intrigued with what I've heard about him as an athlete. … His medal has been tremendous for us. It has given us the confidence that it's possible, but it's been enough time now that we could use another boost."
"It's not just Kikkan for one medal, but I think there is a chance for a medal from the sprint relay and team relay on the ladies' side,'' Ellis says. "That kind of result gives the sport a chance to draw in a larger audience and maybe result in being shown on TV in the future.''
We shall see. If all goes well, that 38-year-long cross-country medal drought could end in a couple weeks. Norwegian star Marit Bjorgen will give Randall tough competition, but the American is skiing at the top of her game and says this Olympic course is a favorable one for her.
Plus, the Norwegians won't have their two wax buses in Sochi.
"The nice thing about Russia is everyone has to travel and there are limits on team sizes and things like that," Randall says. "Those guys aren't going to be able to bring their fancy wax buses."