Cross-country-skiing phenom Kikkan Randall could ski before she could walk — and not just tentative slides across flat, soft snow. “My dad worked at a ski resort when I was very young, and he brought home some skis and boots for my first birthday. He put me on those and made a little hill in the front yard,” says Randall, now 31 (pictured at right). “So I started on alpine skis, and I wasn’t even really standing up on my own yet.”
In 2013, Randall’s experience paid off. She and teammate Jessie Diggins became the first American women ever to score a World Championship gold medal in cross-country skiing.
Diggins’s own first ski trip was as a passenger. “My dad used to put me in his backpack when he and my mom would go skiing,” says the 22-year-old Minnesota native (pictured at left). As she got older, she stayed on the trails for the camaraderie and other perks. “I was involved with the youth ski club, so every weekend I’d go skiing with my friends, and I thought it was just the most fun. And, of course, I was also in it for the hot chocolate and sledding afterward.”
Nearly a decade younger than Randall, Diggins idolized the older skier from Alaska. “When I was a teenager, I competed at the Junior Olympics, and Kikkan came as a guest speaker. I was in awe of her. They were handing out posters, but they ran out. So I got her to sign a piece of cardboard. I still have that cardboard hanging on my wall,” says Diggins. When she made the U.S. Ski Team and was assigned to be Kikkan’s partner, it was a dream come true. “I remember thinking, ‘This is so awesome — I’d better not fall.’ Then I fell twice.”
Today, the women are considered two of the best cross-country skiers in the world. Their historic victory last year at the World Championships in Italy came over the heavily favored Swedish team. (The Swedes, Randall, and Diggins are close friends, having all trained together over the summer.) And their win was significant: They outpaced the Swedes by a notable eight seconds and the third-place Finnish team by a whopping 11 seconds. The triumph marked them as the first American athletes to bring prominence to a sport that has a low profile in the United States. It also makes them front-runners in the lead-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Their victory came in spite of a near catastrophe during the fifth leg of the race. On her last lap, Diggins was ascending a hill when a Finnish racer stepped on one of her poles, sending it flying. “The whole thing came off my hand, which is probably better than if it hadn’t come off because then it would have pulled my shoulder out of place,” she says. When she saw that it had vanished, she made a snap decision. “I thought, ‘I’m almost all the way up the hill anyway. I can make it.’ So I just started using my legs a lot and swinging my empty hand.” A quick-thinking U.S. coach grabbed a nearby pole and raced it over to Diggins. “Looking back, it’s a little comical because it was one of the really tall men’s poles. But I was able to get it, make one last surge, and tag off to Kikkan, who then took off and expanded the lead even more.”
That Diggins continued her uphill surge with just one pole is a testament to her incredible strength and stamina, essential to being a top-tier cross-country skier. For sprint competitions, skiers need the cardiovascular fitness to do high-intensity intervals and recover rapidly. For endurance races, they must have the resilience to push through, much like marathoners or Tour de France cyclists. They need optimal coordination, too, because the physical act of skiing involves moving through every plane of motion. And they need the agility and proprioception to maneuver tricky terrain and weave around obstacles and each other — not to mention the sheer muscle strength required to maintain elite-level speeds.
“It’s a very all-encompassing sport,” explains Randall, “but the end product is this amazing body that you can do anything with. That’s part of what I love about it.”
Off the trail, both women volunteer for Fast and Female, an organization that helps -empower young girls through sport. And Diggins, an avid baker, has been experimenting with making bread and pastries — while Randall, an unabashed fan of doughnuts, has been helping her eat the samples. “At our last training camp, she was making apple-banana muffins for us every morning, and cookies — she’s got more energy than anyone I’ve ever met,” Randall says.
Their primary focus, though, is the Winter Olympics. The 2014 competition will be Randall’s fourth, Diggins’s first.
“We’ve designed our training plan to be at our absolute peak in February,” Randall says. “And we just take it day to day, like building blocks. You just kind of build up to it until, all of a sudden, you’re standing on the Olympic starting line and you’re like, ‘Holy cow, how did I get here?’”
Laine Bergeson is an Experience Life senior editor.