Kikkan Randall: From 'never-heard-of' to Olympic Champion

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If you took a triathlon and put it into one sport, that’s what cross-country skiing feels like. It’s like running a 5k or a 10k where you start off with good speed, find a steady pace, you’re breathing rapidly and you can definitely feel your muscles. Then, because of the up and down nature of our courses, you can glide on the downhill, a little bit like riding a bike. You have a blend of trying to be as efficient as possible with your oxygen capacity while also needing power to get over the hills. It’s that fine line between efficiency and power. You’re using your arms and your legs, so you have a strong muscular component, which is where the lactic acid comes from. As the race goes on, your muscles fatigue first, so you have to keep mental focus and keep your technique strong. That’d be most comparable to swimming, where pure effort can keep you burning for a while, but as you get towards the end of the race it’s a loss of technique that makes things really fall apart.

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On the mental side, the times I did it best were when I was able to focus on the moment I was in and piece together those moments to get through the remainder of the race. There were three parts to that: firstly, an internal cue, which would often be a word - Power. Tempo. Quick. - these would keep my mind focused on that sharper impulse. Then I would use external checkpoints, like Get to that tree or Get over that hill. The third part would be that inner cheerleader, which includes reminding myself how far I’d already made it in the race, or that my training had prepared me to get stronger while my opponents would wilt.


I’ve always been a big ‘team person’. From the early days of running around with my siblings to cousins and neighborhood friends to very tight-knit teams in cross-country running, skiing and track in high school. I love being able to share the process and the highs and lows with those who are working towards the same goals. It makes the highs higher and the lows not as low. I also love helping others get better, it really lifts my spirits to be able to inspire and encourage my teammates and see them improve. I also learned early on that when everyone improves and gets better, it helps me reach new levels of performance that I wouldn’t be able to reach on my own.

For my first few years racing on the World Cup circuit I was the only American woman. I really missed having teammates around and I pushed to get our national team to build a women’s team. It started with getting some of our talented young athletes together at camps, but it became much more. Thanks to the leadership of our coach, Matt Whitcomb, we developed into a team that was not only successful on the course but also an extension of my family.

I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to have worked with some amazing coaches. They’ve taught me to be a good person and a leader, above and beyond just the technique, training and strategy of my sport.



I grew up in an active family; my Dad put me on skis for the first time when I was one. He built a small hill for me in the front yard and he said I had the biggest smile on my face. We moved to Alaska when I was three and I have so many memories of playing outside with siblings, cousins and friends. When I was five, I vividly remember watching my first Olympics on TV (the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary) and deciding right then that I wanted to be an Olympian someday. My Aunt Betsy and Uncle Chris had both competed in the Olympics in cross-country skiing, so it felt like an achievable goal. Initially, however, I never considered going to the Olympics as a cross-country skier, that sport was too hard!


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As a kid, I loved sports and wanted to try everything. My Olympic aspirations changed many times depending on what sport I was into at the time - soccer, running and alpine skiing all fascinated me at points. In high school, I started getting pretty serious about running. At the end of my sophomore year, at age 16, my running coach moved out of town and I needed a new training group. I was introduced to a coach that was starting a new ski program called Gold 2002, and after speaking with him I decided to give the program a try. We looked over my training logs to-date and it became apparent that I had some serious potential in cross-country skiing. Within a few weeks, I switched my goal from making it to the Foot Locker Nationals to trying to qualify for the World Junior team in cross-country skiing. Over those first few months, I started to think about how XC skiing was a nice combination of all the other sports I loved, and I was intrigued that no American woman had ever been close to an Olympic medal in the sport. I had this little flicker of belief deep down that thought, “Well, maybe I can be the first!”


From then on, my focus was on cross-country skiing. I ended up making the World Junior team that season, and the next year I made the World Championships, and the next year I made my first Olympic team. It was a pretty fast trajectory of success early on, and I think that really helped me get so hooked. I think what ultimately made me want to pursue my sport was curiosity and optimism, combined with some naivety and self-confidence, around the idea that I could be a successful international ski racer. I also loved how strong and fit it made me feel.

“When you focus on what you can control right in front of you, you can go from a never-heard-of to an Olympic Champion.”


I would like to be seen as an athlete that helped open the door to possibility in American skiing, especially on the female side. I took a risk in trying to become the first US woman to race successfully on the international stage when there was no path and no confidence that it was actually possible. But I decided it was worth a try! I had to battle through a lot of lacklustre results, be patient through the long process and be really good at seeing the small successes that could keep me motivated and on track. Through it all, I tried to be positive, upbeat and optimistic all while encouraging others to tackle this challenge with me. I hope I’m seen as a leader and a good teammate. The team we were able to create, and the depth of success we now have is what I’m most proud of through my career.


As an athlete, I would like to be as respected for the three overall sprint globes I won as much I am for the Olympic gold medal. Winning those globes required consistent success across the whole season, which I am proud to have been able to put together three seasons in a row.

Photo courtesy of Reese Brown / SIA Nordic



I am lucky that early in my career I got introduced to the concepts of sports psychology. In high school, our track coach challenged us to think about the physical training as well as our mental approach: how to be mentally strong, prepared and operate as a team. Sometimes that helps you take the focus off your own pain and contribute to a goal that’s bigger than yourself. He had us read books as diverse as Dr Seuss’ All The Places You’ll Go, and The Alchemist. I was so young and impressionable, and it was given to us in such a cool way that I think it helped me cultivate my mental skills without even realizing I was doing it.

Then, in my first couple of years on the US ski team, we had a grad assistant who was doing her Master’s in Sports Psychology. We covered the main categories, which were things like goal setting, imagery, relaxation, and dealing with adversity. I think there were 8 concepts in total. We got exposed to every different component, and would regularly grade ourselves on each. What was great about that was I got introduced to every concept and from there I got to pick and choose what worked for me. Some things I naturally did well and others took effort. On top of that, different concepts worked for me at different points. When things were going really well I’d feed off my self-confidence and focus on the process. When I’d be injured it’d be a lot of imagery and visualization to take the place of what I wasn’t able to do physically. And then when my performance wasn’t very good I got to focus on my self-talk. By the end, I had developed a pretty natural skill set that worked for me. Over time I kept refining it, but it became a sub-conscious activity.

After spending my whole life dedicated to my sporting goals, the last few months have been really interesting. I’ve had to transition and think about what to do with my time, what my goals are, how to keep myself fit and healthy. I didn’t realize how much structure I had in my life. On one hand, it’s fun to think that I can now go out and do anything, but as soon as I get out there I get debilitated by the freedom of choice. That caught me by surprise a little bit. I’ve gained a lot more skills and experiences than I give myself credit for, so now it’s about reinventing those skills in different ways. For instance, being a parent, time management is important. To spend time with your kids and give them everything they need, and still get everything you need so you can be the best parent, you have to be diligent about planning. Or, when things get hectic and crazy, focus on what you can do right now and get through it. The physical training I’ve done will serve me well, no doubt, but more so the mental training through my athletic career will serve me well as I transition.



Sports have been such an important part of my life. The benefits are too numerous to name. I am passionate about helping others experience all these benefits through their participation in sport, especially for girls who are much more likely to drop out of sports in their teen years.

For the last 9 years, I have led the US side of Fast and Female, a non-profit organization with the mission to keep girls in sports. We have a small organization in the USA thus far but a ton of potential to expand our mission and our programming across the country and across sports. I am looking forward to being able to spend more time expanding our program.

I have always been a big supporter of the Olympics and the Olympic Movement and this past winter I was honored to be elected by my fellow Olympic athletes to the IOC Athletes’ Commission. This is a volunteer position for the next eight years where I get to represent the voice of the athletes within the Olympic Movement. I look forward to helping strengthen the Olympic Movement for future generations as well as making the experience of the athletes during and after their careers smoother and more thoroughly supported.

And finally, I would love to stay involved with the US ski community to encourage our young skiers coming up and hopefully pass along some of the experience I have gained over my 20-year career. I would love to come to some training camps and international competitions to help out where I can!


Words by Kikkan Randall, edited and produced by in collaboration with Rudy Project North America. 

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