Back to the Start: Kikkan Randall

Kikkan Randall went from experiencing Olympic glory to undergoing chemotherapy in a matter of months. Here, she discusses overcoming hard challenges — and rising to face new ones.

Kikkan Randall

Kikkan Randall has always been determined. “When I just started crawling, my parents put me down in the grass near some playground equipment,” she says. “They thought I’d stop and look back at them, but I just kept going.”

She learned to ski just a day after her first birthday and became a decorated athlete at East Anchorage High School, winning 10 state titles in track and cross-country. She fell in love with cross-country skiing after taking it up as a way to keep fit during the long Alaskan winters.

In 2002, the 19-year-old Randall made her Olympic debut in Salt Lake City, where she finished 44th in the Olympic Sprint. Four years later, at the 2006 Games, she finished ninth.

Randall’s dedication and training regimen (two daily workouts six days a week) helped her win the World Cup sprint title three consecutive seasons (2012–2014) and earned her the nickname “Kikkan-Animal.”

She took the 2015–2016 season off to start a family; her son, Breck, was born in 2016. The pink-haired, powerhouse returned to the 2018 Olympics and skied — along with team sprint partner Jessie Diggins — a now-legendary race.

Hanging around the front of the pack with the Swedish and Norwegian teams, Diggins made a late charge down the stretch, passing Sweden’s Stina Nilsson to win the gold — a first for American women in cross-country skiing.

But the celebrations didn’t last long. Shortly after the Olympics, Randall announced her cancer diagnosis on social media. “I hoped being open about my struggles might help other people in similar circumstances,” she explains. “I also wanted to stay active and positive during my recovery, so I did it as a way to hold myself accountable.”

Not surprisingly, Randall achieved her goal — even clicking back into her bindings a month after her last radiation treatment to ski the American Birkebeiner. “I’d never raced 50 kilometers before,” she says. “I wanted to get out there to show other people that going through something tough doesn’t mean that you have to stop being you.”

Experience Life | How did the healthy habits that you had built over the years as an athlete help you in your recovery from cancer?

Kikkan Randall | As an athlete, you learn to notice a bit of improvement every day and see how that leads to more success every year. You learn to focus on the process. You learn there are things you can control and things you can’t control. If you spend time on those things that you can control — like making the most of every moment, because even if today is uncomfortable, tomorrow could be a different day, reframing the challenge to see it as an opportunity, and finding the positive in the smallest things on tough days — you’ll keep going forward.

Also, I think that being fit and physically and mentally strong coming into my cancer recovery really helped me bounce back more quickly after tough days.

EL | You chose to share your cancer story very publicly on social media. Why?

KR | I learned as an athlete that being part of a community is essential to success. While the goal of winning a medal always kept me motivated, I think the fact that I got to be outside around like-minded, enthusiastic people who were working toward a similar goal was just as important.
So, as soon as I got the diagnosis, my mind switched into athlete mode and it was like, Okay, I’m going to need a plan and a team to support me.

It worked, especially on those days when I was lying on the couch feeling miserable, and the last thing I wanted to do was go out the door. Having that community support helped me get up and out of the door, and I would feel better.

I also did it to give back to the community. When I was competing, I was always excited to share my triumphs, but also felt it was equally as important to share the low points and my struggles.

EL | You’ve said that, as an athlete, you were used to relying on your body to do anything that you set your mind to, but cancer showed you the power that your mind plays in success. Can you talk a little bit about that?

KR | Well, going through my athletic challenges, I knew that the mental side played a huge role in success. A lot of athletics and competition is about willing your body to go just that little bit harder as you’re fighting against the red line or the time clock.

But, when I was doing athletic pursuits, I always had the option to stop. When I was going through cancer treatment, there was no option to stop. I had to keep going forward. It was life or death. So I used the mental toughness that I’d built as an athlete to keep reminding me that, while this is hard now, it’s going to be worth it.

It was also very challenging for me to have to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t outwill or outwork this particular challenge, that I really was going to have to focus on it day to day. But I think knowing how to overcome adversity and how to keep a positive mindset helped me to get through it.

EL | What have you been doing since you finished treatment and what are you looking forward to doing?

KR | I’ve been doing a lot of public speaking as well as attending meetings as a representative to the International Olympic Committee and the board of the United States Olympic Committee. I’m also working with an organization called Fast and Female. Growing up, I was fortunate to have amazing female athletes as role models — and not just seeing them on cereal boxes — and that isn’t the case for every girl.

Fast and Female connects girls with their heroes. Hopefully, doing so ignites an idea in their mind that being involved in sports is the foundation for anything they want to do. If they can be healthy and active, and do it together with other athletes, they’ll believe that they can accomplish anything that they set their mind to.

EL | How have you approached the different phases in your life and all of the highs and lows that you’ve experienced?

KR | As a goal-oriented person, I’m always chasing a target. Even when I achieve my ambition — like making the Olympic team and eventually winning a medal — after celebrating my success, my immediate thought is always, What’s next?

I like having a bit of mastery in something and then having to get down and gritty again to forge a new path. I think it gets me excited, it reignites that fire to keep improving and learning.

After having gone through the experience of cancer — the fear of the unknown and all of the factors and experiences that make it a really daunting process — I’m really grateful to be able to maximize this opportunity in life to spend my time and energy on the things that really matter. It’s extra exciting to be at the starting line this time.

is an Experience Life senior editor.

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