Skier Kikkan Randall isn't slowing down
Two years ago, at a World Cup ski event in Lahti, Finland, Kikkan Randall, an American nordic skier, found herself sitting in a sauna at friend and Finnish competitor Aino-Kaisa Saarinen's house.
"In Finland, when you are in sauna," Saarinen said, "that's when you speak about personal things. We were talking about how it would be nice to have a baby, and both of us were thinking to try after the World Champs in Falun, 2015."
The conversation was perhaps a little unusual. For elite ski racers, each four-year Olympic cycle includes a single season without a major event -- no World Championships and no Olympic Games. Traditionally, that gap year has been treated as a season to fine-tune, recover, recuperate or even retire.
But Randall, a three-time overall sprint World Champion in nordic skiing, and Saarinen, an Olympic medalist, saw a new opportunity: a chance to start a family.
Now they have due dates just 12 days apart (Randall on April 21, Saarinen on May 3). And they're not alone.
Two more of Randall's Cross Country World Cup Skiing colleagues -- including six-time Olympic champion Marit Bjorgen of Norway, who gave birth this past December -- have decided they can have it all.
Randall, Saarinen, Bjorgen and Katja Visnar (SLO), all ranked among the world's best, will be back next season with infants in tow. And if all goes according to plan, they'll be in top form for the 2017 World Championships.
There have been a handful of moms on the ski circuit in this sport's history, but Randall, 33, is part of what seems to be a growing (get it?) and even undeniable trend. And Randall has been working with her sport's governing body -- the Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS) -- to help make this transition as smooth as possible for everyone.
In perhaps the biggest surprise of all, FIS is actually collaborating. It votes this summer on proposals to have a "family tent" at World Cup finish areas. FIS even has plans to add lodging and credentialing for caregivers and extra family members.
This is a huge shift for a sport recently headed by president Gian-Franco Kasper, who infamously said ski jumping "seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view."
Randall, like her elite colleagues, is about to enter a brave new world for women athletes. One where she can thrive as an athlete and still be a mom. It wasn't without concern.
"The thought process I went through is very common for female athletes," said Randall from her home in Anchorage, Alaska. "Will my sponsors support me, will my coaches support me, will I lose all kinds of sponsors and money?' But I do think there is a shift happening."
Happily, Randall found out she could put those fears to rest: Her sponsors were staying put.
That leaves it up to the "Kikkanimal," as she is widely known on the circuit, to do the work. Due to give birth April 21, Randall has enjoyed a relatively easy pregnancy, made even easier by U.S. Ski Team coaches and trainers who have supported her from the start. And no wonder: Randall is the first American woman to ever score a World Cup top-10, let alone win a World Cup event, a World Cup discipline title and a World Championship medal. She is largely credited with putting the U.S. Nordic Women's Team on the map.
"It's been a collective effort," Randall said about learning how to train safely and effectively through her pregnancy. "None of the coaches or doctors have ever been through this before. We've all put our heads together and tried to come up with a program that is realistic and works best."
The new program evolves from month to month and, into the third trimester, from day to day. Having just been through a pregnancy herself, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Senior Physiologist Tschana Schiller was able to craft a substantial training regimen, but one that would adapt to the physical realities of pregnancy.
"It's mind-blowing how unbelievably fatigued you can get in your first trimester," Schiller said. "There was never any forcing. [Kikkan] could just reach out to me based on how she was feeling, and we would adjust from there. Every pregnancy is different."
In the beginning months, Randall liked running, until it "felt weird," so she stopped. Around the third month, exercises that involved lying on her back stopped. Lying on her stomach stopped, too. As the baby grew, plyometric sessions on land turned to plyometric sessions in the pool.
"The ultimate goal is to avoid any injury," Schiller said. "We're not pushing numbers. We're just training. We're just working on being healthy."
A nice thought, but for some of these skiers, a competitive drive will always be part of the mix, so "just working on being healthy" sometimes isn't satisfying.
"I sent Bjorgen a note when I first got pregnant," Randall recalled. "She told me congratulations and said she was really happy with how much she'd been able to train [during her pregnancy]. She told me she'd been training 80 hours a month for the first five months, and I was pretty shocked because I don't even train 80 hours when I'm not pregnant."
Randall can chuckle at Bjorgen's intensity, because with 105 World Cup victories, the Norwegian has pretty clearly established that she's superhuman.
To be sure, though, any elite athlete used to getting stronger at every workout is not happy feeling their strength dwindle -- from 170-pound back squats, as Randall was used to doing, to front squats, to a 20-pound dumbbell squat. Let alone watching their interval times slow to a snail's pace. But by all accounts Randall is pushing through and thriving into her third trimester.
"I'm really happy with how much I've been able to train," Randall said. "I've been doing two-a-days and intervals twice a week. The second trimester was easy and fun; going into the third trimester now I hope to feel the same."
She had the benefit of connecting with her good friend Saarinen this past December while both were spectating at a World Cup race in Italy. The two of them, pregnant and oddly awkward as bystanders in their own world, found comfort heading out to train together for a few sessions.
"It feels a bit strange to be out there, pregnant, doing interval training," Saarinen said. "But then to do it with Kikkan, who was doing the same things, was so nice."
The two of them are pushing ahead, with a few doubts and uncertainties around first-time motherhood, but mostly with a refreshed perspective: that what they're doing is best for them and maybe even for their sport.
"If you are 12 years, 15 years a cross-country skier, you need some changes in your brain," said FIS cross country event coordinator Sandra Spitz. "Maybe having a family gives you new motivation and new challenges. Now it's the right time; people understand that raising kids and being a competitor should be a possible combination."
For perhaps the first time in her career, Randall will be approaching a competition season without a clear picture of how it will work and what it will look like. But she does have a few images in mind.
"In 2006," Randall said, "one of my idols [Czech skier Katerina Neumannova ] came back to win gold in Torino. I remember being in the finish that day and seeing her little 2-year-old daughter running out to greet her in the finish."
Fast-forward 10 years, and Neumannova's daughter now idolizes Randall. The American got a call from Neumannova -- her daughter asked if she could have a pair of Kikkan Randall signature YOKO ski poles.
"I know my kid will be too young to remember my experience," Randall said, "but I'll still be able to say, 'Yeah, you came on the road with me and you were at my races. You traveled Europe.' I hope to be able to share a moment in the finish someday like Katerina did."
Carrie Sheinberg was named to the U.S. Ski Team in 1990 and made the Olympic team in 1994 where she was the top American finisher in the slalom in Lillehammer, Norway. Sheinberg went on to win three U.S. national titles. She has written for ESPN the Magazine, SKI, Outside and The Boston Globe.