Amy Donaldson: Randall, Diggins win world cross country skiing championship
If Kikkan Randall were Norwegian, she'd be a household name by now.
With bright blue eyes, an electrifying smile, a fierce competitive drive and a commitment to charitable causes, the 31-year-old is the kind of athlete companies should beg to represent them.
And they just might, now that she's done what no other American ever has.
On Sunday in Val di Fiemme, Italy, she and teammate Jessie Diggins won the country's first world championship in cross country.
It was a moment many years in the making, with most of the hardest, most grueling work occurring far from Sunday's spotlight.
"This is my seventh world championship (competition), and I've spent a lot of time watching awards ceremonies," she said immediately after the win. "So we're pretty excited to do it in a team event, especially, and finally get the U.S. on the podium."
Diggins' pole broke on her third lap while she was in the lead. Coach Erik Flora sprinted down the track to give her a replacement pole, and she never lost her momentum. When Randall took over on the final lap, the team was in third place, behind Sweden and Finland. Randall did what she does best — sprinted to the front until it was just her and the finish line.
"That was so incredible, seeing that clean snow in front of me and crossing the line," said Randall. "I tried to be stoic and stand up for a while, but my legs were pretty dead. That moment when (my) teammate comes out and it starts to sink in that you're world champions, it's incredible."
Randall isn't just competing in a sport that's been dominated by Europeans for centuries, she's proving to be one of the best.
Consider these firsts by the three-time Olympian:
First World Cup women's podium.
First World Cup women's victory.
First world championships women's medal.
First Olympics women's top ten finish. (Eighth in Vancouver)
First World Cup overall women's discipline.
First World Cup overall sprint champion.
Randall also has five World Cup victories, 13 World Cup podiums, four Olympic top ten finishes and an astounding 17 national championships.
Diggins told reporters on Sunday that she knew the duo could do well because there is no better sprinter than her teammate.
"Any time you're sprinting with the best sprinter in the world, it's like, 'Alright!'" she said, as Randall laughed in the back ground. "Because I knew that if I could just get her to take off in a good position, then she'd be able to hold it and improve upon it. So I just tried to get her in the best spot I could, and I have absolute confidence in her."
Randall was born in Salt Lake City while her mother was attending law school at the University of Utah. The family moved back to their home state of Alaska, where she grew up a decorated high school runner. She was Alaska's Gatorade Track athlete twice (2000 and 2001) and is a seven time state champion in three events — the 800, 1600 and 3200 meter races.
Her aunt and uncle were competitive cross country skiers, so she took up cross country skiing as a way to stay in shape, and her talent quickly revealed itself. She is a seven-time U.S. Junior National ski champ and U.S. Ski Association cross country skier of the year — three times.
Randall is committed to helping young people and is active in a number charities that help children through athletics. One of those, Fast and Female, she oversaw in Park City this fall.
Randall's success will hopefully bring more attention to a sport that is growing.
In 2011-2012, more than 4.3 million people participated in the sport, according to Snowsports.org. Compare that to the 10.2 million people who participated in Alpine and the 7.5 million people who participated in snowboarding, and the fact that cross country skiers toil in obscurity isn't surprising.
But the same survey shows that cross country skiing is growing at a faster rate (9 percent) than snowboarding (5 percent) or alpine (1 percent).
Still, winter sports, in general, are much more popular as participatory events and recreational opportunities, than they are spectator sports.
If anyone has the ability to change that, it's Kikkan Randall.
"This is the most incredible day of my ski career so far," she said. "We've been looking forward to this race all year. We've been talking about it and the whole team has been helping us get here ... It's just what we imagined it would be."
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