KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUSSIA — Kikkan Randall still has the T-shirt fellow Alaskan Tommy Moe signed for her when he was an Olympic downhill champion and she was a little girl. In those days, she pinned pictures of alpine ski racers to her bedroom walls and named her unicycle after Picabo Street.
As she got older, she was attracted to cross country skiing, with different roles model to emulate. One was Bill Koch, the only American to win an Olympic medal in cross country skiing. Now she's a favorite to become the second in her best event, the individual sprint race Tuesday.
A reigning world champion, two-time world championships medalist and two-time World Cup season sprint champion, Randall has never met Koch, who took silver at the 1976 Olympics. She knows all about him, though.
"He's almost like a myth or a legend for us," Randall said. "I've always been intrigued by what I've heard about him as an athlete. He was incredibly attentive to detail, looking for ways to think about things differently, to try different training, to try different equipment. His silver medal has really kept that fire burning for all of us, that if we just work hard enough and want it bad enough, we too can make Olympic medals happen."
Koch's medal in the 30-kilometer race remains the only U.S. cross country medal. It has been a long battle for U.S. cross country to reach a place where Randall and others have medal hopes.
"We had the success in cross country skiing back in the '70s and '80s, so we've known it's possible, and we've had the ingredients for a long time," Randall said. "But it's taken getting the right people, together with a long-term plan, slowly building our way up each step. And now that we're finally arriving at the top stage, we're hoping to create a legacy so this isn't just another small successful era of cross country skiing, this is the beginning of Americans belonging on the world stage."
It takes decades for athletes to build the "endurance base" in sports such as cross country and long-distance running before they can reach their potential. Randall, 31, is in her fourth Olympics.
"I remember being 19 years old at the Olympics and being really ambitious," Randall said. "Someone made the comment, 'Kikkan, it may take you 10 years to develop into an Olympic contender,' and I kind of thought, 'Well, I'm going to work harder and do more than everybody else.' But as I've gone through my career, there have been times when progress is slow on the World Cup (circuit), you're in the back of the pack and you're like, 'How am I going to make up that next little bit?'
"Thankfully, I love what I do, I love the training, I love trying to find a new level each year. I love the lifestyle, getting to travel around the world, getting to turn my body into this fit machine that can go out and tackle any adventure. The love for what I do has kept me going."
Cross country 101
American sports fans who think of cross country ski racing as a long, slow trek through the woods are in for a surprise when they see the sprint races, which may well produce the first American Olympic medals in cross country since 1976 on Tuesday. A primer:
Sprint races involve several knockout heats on short loops — 1,800 meters for the men, 1,250 meters for the women. First there is a qualification round for all entrants, using individual starts (a racer going off each 15 seconds) to determine the top 30 who advance to the knockout heats.
There are five quarterfinal heats, six racers in each. The top two in each heat automatically advance to the semifinals, along with the two fastest times after those across all heats.
The top two in each semifinal advance, plus the two best times after them, making for a final heat of six racers. They then sprint for the medals.
"It's one of my favorite formats," said American sprint star Kikkan Randall. "You're out there, racing around the course with five other skiers, it's head to head action, there's a lot of strategy involved, close finishes. I think it's great because Americans love sports like NASCAR, where the action is very understandable. We're just doing NASCAR on toothpicks."
- John Meyer, The Denver Post