After the first numbing jolt of the news, the people who knew Kikkan best felt a near-mystical confidence that she would find a way to prevail.
"I think Kikkan's gonna be able to beat anything that's thrown at her,'' U.S. head coach Matt Whitcomb said last year. "I don't know if that's realistic, but .... What she can do is generally in excess of what most people can handle. That isn't to say it's easy for her. She's not writing as many of her own rules as she did.''
She had to scramble for traction initially, between jobs and countries, uninsured in either the U.S. or the Canadian health care systems. The U.S. Olympic Committee ultimately agreed to extend Kikkan's coverage, and she decided to commute to Anchorage for treatment. First would come six rounds of chemotherapy, three weeks apart, starting in July. Then surgery. Then radiation.
But first, she and Jeff decided to invest in hope. She underwent fertility treatments as a prelude to in vitro fertilization. The process initially yielded several embryos, but that number dwindled, achingly, to just one viable enough to be stored in the event that Kikkan is able to contemplate a pregnancy in the next few years.
Kikkan and Jeff, a former NCAA and Canadian national team 400-meter hurdler who later transitioned to ski racing, met at a postrace bowling social and were married in May 2008 under an arch of crossed skis. Beneath his amiable manner and easy smile is a high-level athlete's mindset and a deep understanding of what it takes to succeed.
Jeff often introduces himself as "Mr. Kikkan" without a shred of self-consciousness -- "When I stopped racing, and certainly when we had Breck, we both couldn't be hard driving at something,'' he said -- but after years of hopping from gig to gig to follow her career, they had decided it was his turn to pursue an opportunity in Penticton. They bought a house on a hill overlooking the picturesque town on Okanagan Lake and found day care for Breck a short walk away.
Right before Kikkan started treatment, Jeff embarked on a 34-hour solo drive from British Columbia to Alaska to return a leased car. He passed the tedious hours by listening to podcasts about entrepreneurship, and by the time he arrived in Alaska, he'd made up his mind about how they would wring something good out of the months to come. He would quit his new job, manage Kikkan's business and make sure Breck had stability.
Kikkan rode her bike to her first chemo infusion and wore tie-dyed running shoes that made her happy. She invited the media. Friends and family kept her company. She announced her diagnosis publicly on Instagram a day later, saying the color pink had taken on a new significance for her. She began recording her daily blogs, often alone in a bedroom in her mother's Anchorage condo, talking into a smartphone mounted on a tripod. She sent the clips to Jeff, who posted them on her eponymous website the next morning.
The couple collaborated on a project to create wildly colorful socks imprinted with the words "It is going to be OK!'' -- incorporating a pink K for Kikkan. Part of the proceeds would go to AKTIV Against Cancer, an organization that promotes fitness for cancer patients and survivors. She would wear the socks during infusions to keep her feet warm and her mind on track. More than 1,000 pairs sold in the first three weeks.
Support poured in on her Instagram feed and on kikkan.com. Jeff and Tanner shaved their heads when she did. Kalli and her co-workers at the Haymarket Pub & Brewery in Chicago concocted a Belgian Tripel beer called "My Breast Friend,'' infused with organic Egyptian hibiscus tea to impart a hint of pink, with a dollar per pint channeled into Kikkan's favorite charities.
"I knew I was well-supported as an athlete, but the number of people who have been sending me messages, notes, stopping me in public since the diagnosis is way beyond what I ever experienced skiing,'' Kikkan said. "When you're conquering the race results, you think you know what you mean to people, but I think it's even more powerful when you're in a situation like this, where you're not the strong, invincible one.''
It was an unintended consequence: a different kind of Kikkan Effect.
There was a certain defiance in Kikkan's attitude when treatment started. She toyed with entering the New York City Marathon. Why not? It would be three weeks after her last infusion. She imagined the bad side effects would come in waves and she'd be able to train in between. In the end, she set the more modest goal of doing at least an hour of activity a day, mixing in weights and core work.
But the second round of chemo knocked the wind out of her. She'd picked up a bug, and the virus blew through her weakened immune system, bringing fever, congestion and profound fatigue. She recorded some blogs in a hoarse whisper, lying in bed.
Liz arrived for a visit that week.
"She barely got off the grass to come hug me after she had gone on a bike ride,'' Liz said. "I wasn't prepared for the deadness I saw in her eyes. It was thrown right in my face. Like, this is happening, you can't ignore this. You can't decide Kikkan's bigger than this. Nobody's bigger than this. You can mentally fight something in a super-positive and super-legitimate fashion, but it's gonna hit her like it's gonna hit another human.''
Kikkan recovered and gradually learned how to ride out the cycles of nausea and lethargy and fluid retention that caused her to gain as much as 12 pounds of water weight after an infusion. Curious about her new physical limits, she pushed herself on runs, mountain bike rides and roller-ski interval sessions. She set such a torrid pace on one hike that Rachel and another friend whispered to each other and decided to turn her around. Sometimes the workouts backfired. Other times, she momentarily forgot what she was up against.
Breck was thankfully too young to absorb much, beyond an obvious visual cue: He once pointed to a hairless mannequin in a display window and said, "Mommy!'' He sometimes seemed to intuit when Kikkan didn't have the energy to horse around with him, or could toss him into the air only 10 times instead of 20.
The blog presented an unexpected challenge. Kikkan and Jeff got feedback that she presented herself as too positive at times, that she was making the journey look too easy. She had to force herself off her default setting of upbeat role model and allow glimpses into times when she was hollow-eyed and discouraged. Jeff noticed that views increased when she had a bad day, and chalked it up to a collective fascination with how she'd react.
Kikkan grew more introspective as the weeks spooled out. She emphasized how spending a day idling indoors made her more apt to nosedive emotionally. Anyone could relate to that, she thought.
Day 36: "Catching my reflection through the car window in the mirror. I have no choice but to embrace it.''
Day 62: "I woke up from my nap today in a bad mood. All the things this has gotten in the way of, all the things this will affect in the future. I had to fight off negative thoughts. I think it's because I didn't get out for a workout. I will do that tomorrow, even if it's just for 30 minutes.''
Day 78: "Spent the day staring at the computer screen and I notice a huge difference in my coping skills, focus, and overall happiness.''
Day 110: "I hate when I have to admit I'm not superhuman.''
Kikkan traveled to New York the week before the marathon after all, not to race, but to accept an award from AKTIV. She stood at the dais at the New York Athletic Club in a sleeveless hot-pink dress, bald and lean, her bare arms still ropy with muscle, and told the luncheon gathering about the disappointment of Sochi. She described seeing the United States atop the digital scoreboard in Pyeongchang. She held up her gold medal.
"Right away, I committed to myself and to the public that I was going to stay active, because I knew that was going to be key not only to helping my body process and beat this cancer, but it was also going to be the mental part I needed to get through it day to day,'' she said.
"When you come into the doctor's office and they flood you with all this information, it's not the first thing that comes to mind. In fact, what they tell you is, 'Rest, be careful, take care of yourself.' And yes, that is to be respected for sure, but you can't just stop what you're used to. You've got to keep doing it,'' she says.
Two days after her Nov. 8 lumpectomy in Anchorage, Kikkan posted a short Instagram video in which she skied with one pole -- her left -- and rested her right hand near her hip to spare the side where she'd had surgery. She'd already been told she would have to go back in for a second excision to ensure no precancerous cells lurked in the margins. The ensuing pathology would dictate whether or not she continued her treatment as planned, or considered a possible mastectomy.
Kikkan didn't want to sit and churn about it. She and her high school girlfriends made a Sunday night date to meet at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub for a showing of "Face of Winter'' -- the most recent in the film series created by pioneering winter sport cinematographer Warren Miller. It was a throwback to their teenage days, when seeing Miller's latest release was an annual ritual at the start of ski season.
Thanks to Kikkan and Jessie, producers featured cross-country skiing alongside alpine and extreme skiing for the first time. Their images filled the big screen: Kikkan skidding on her knees toward Jessie, who lay spread-eagled on her back past the finish line; Kikkan's cheekbones flushed pink, her signature shade, the picture of health. The contrast between the elation of Pyeongchang and the reality just nine months later felt inescapably cruel.
The crowd erupted at the sight of their hometown heroine, larger than life. Kikkan watched herself from the front row, the reflected glow illuminating her face, smiling slightly, her gaze unreadable. A couple of her friends dabbed at their eyes. "I want to see it again,'' one murmured.
Asked to give impromptu remarks at intermission, Kikkan bounded onto the stage and enthusiastically plugged the local ski area benefitting from the screening. A knitted hat covered her shaved head. Her quadriceps still appeared formidably carved underneath her jeans. Aside from her skin tone, paler than usual, it was hard to tell she was sprinting for her life.
She reported to the hospital the next day to hear the full postsurgical report from her medical team, wearing a teal U.S. team jacket like a familiar suit of armor. Nurse practitioner Nancy Nibbe told her the overall prognosis was as good as it could be. The chemo had shrunk the tumor to nothing. The second excision would be done out of an abundance of caution.
Kikkan's surgeon Marilyn Sandford, a slender woman with a frank, irreverent manner, stopped by and asked why she wasn't using her right-hand ski pole in the Instagram post. "So much of what we tell women to do in recovery is myth,'' the doctor said. "No one's gonna break my sutures.''
Few words could have sounded sweeter to Kikkan in that moment. "You've given me a lot of ground to go, and that's when I tend to go,'' she said.
The pathology report came back clean.
She's home now. Late one January afternoon, light streams into the living room from sliding doors that lead onto a wooden deck. Kikkan and Jeff are still hanging art on the walls -- settling in had to take a back seat to cancer treatment -- but the house feels like them, with sports shoes and boots piled in the entryway and the handmade pottery they got as a wedding gift stacked in a rustic cupboard.
Breck's PAW Patrol cars, Thomas the Tank Engine train tracks and Tonka Trucks fill the floor of a downstairs playroom. Kikkan likes to hang out there and listen to him ramble about his world, innocent and uncomplicated and untouched, she hopes, by what she has just been through.
A panoramic black-and-white photo of the Chugach mountain range near Anchorage dominates their dining room. Jeff has noted that it's hard to get Alaskans to leave Alaska, so he made sure Kikkan had a piece of it she could see every day.
Not that she's sitting still much. She perches on a couch backlit by the sinking sun and ticks off her itinerary for the next two months:
Park City, Utah, for a speaking engagement. Los Angeles, to do advance work for a gig with Princess Cruises. Minneapolis, to promote the 2020 World Cup event there. Hayward, Wisconsin, to race the 50-kilometer event -- a distance she has never done at race pace -- at the American Birkebeiner weekend. Beijing, for three exhibition races. Quebec City, for the World Cup final and a reunion of U.S. cross-country Olympians. Sponsor engagements in New England. An appearance for the American Cancer Society in Anchorage. Dartmouth College, to attend a two-week business school program.
“I knew I was well-supported as an athlete, but the number of people who have been sending me messages, notes, stopping me in public since the diagnosis is way beyond what I ever experienced skiing.”
Kikkan laughs, knowing how absurdly ambitious it sounds. The saying "no" thing is not getting off to a good start.
"It's the excitement of getting control back,'' she says. "I get to say 'yes.' My energy is more predictable, and that invincibility complex comes back in.
"Living the best life is doing all these things."
She knows she has some rough terrain ahead. She's continuing on one chemo drug, along with hormone treatments to suppress ovarian function. The latter will continue for five to 10 years. If she's cleared to take a break and get pregnant, she'll ricochet from that back to premature menopause afterward. The invasive cancer is gone and she has done everything right so far, but the athlete's mantra of put in the work and you'll get the results doesn't apply here. Cancer isn't an opponent that can be out-skied in fractions of a second.
"Whenever I start to go down that road of fear of recurrence, being frustrated at what this has disrupted, at how this has altered me in ways that will never go back, I just kind of go, 'Well, we don't know,'" Kikkan says. "I could live a long, healthy life and never have a problem with this again. Or it could crop up in a really nasty way, soon. I have to do all the things I can to give myself the best chance, but I can't control that. It's worth trying to appreciate the moments you have right in front of you, because that's what you have control of.''
That word, control. It keeps cropping up.
"Your mind wants to go to the what-ifs,'' she says. "That could become really daunting and scary and bog you down. But you can't control it. You can't will yourself through that. I'd rather just acknowledge that, and bring it back to, 'OK, I feel good right now, I have this amazing family, I can do all this stuff. I feel way better than I did a couple months ago.
"That doesn't mean it's not a constant battle in my head. Occasionally I do let it get out of control, and that's where Jeff is great: 'Hey, we have all these things to be happy about. The prognosis is really good, we have Breck, and he's amazing.'"
Her voice, wobbling on the edge, cracks in wonder on the last syllable.
The next morning, I come along on the drive to the Nickel Plate Nordic Centre at 6,300 feet of elevation, above the clouds huddled in the Okanagan Valley. Kikkan and Jeff set off under a blindingly blue sky. The squeak and scrape of their skis on the corduroy-groomed trail sounds routine and happy as they disappear into the evergreens.
They return, exuberant, almost two hours later. "I can't wait to download the data from my heart monitor,'' Kikkan says. It's impressive: 23.78 kilometers, 680 meters of climbing, average heart rate 132, maximum heart rate 158, maximum speed 46.6 kilometers per hour.
Yet numbers can't measure what has transpired in the year since the gold medal. Life can open a trap door without warning under anyone, even the strongest person in the room. Dropping into that unaccustomed, fragile space shifted Kikkan from being one of a kind to one among many. All the more reason for her to urge anyone she can reach to try to find their own alien superhero within.
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN. Follow her on Twitter @Bonnie_D_Ford.