Foreigners at home, US skiers shine at last on global stage
Alaskan Kikkan Randall, at Nordic Worlds, wins first medal for US in cross-country skiing since 1982.
As a spunky teen who entered bodybuilding competitions, skied 74 miles an hour downhill to win the Alaska speed-skiing competition, and nearly ran a sub-5-minute mile, Kikkan Randall acquired the nickname "Kikkanimal."Skip to next paragraph
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It stuck, and it should. No one makes it to the top echelons of cross-country skiing, where the world's fittest women wage battle in a scrum of flying skis, without a certain ferocity.
That attitude, plus a decade of grueling training, helped Randall score a second-place finish this week at the 2009 Nordic World Ski Championships – only the second American ever to medal in cross-country at Worlds.
"I've always had the compulsion, ever since I was a little kid, to do something big," said Randall via e-mail. “When I got involved in cross-country skiing, the US hadn't been successful yet. But deep down I felt it was possible."
In a sporting upset on par with Jamaica's bobsled gold at the 2000 Worlds, the US ski team was leading the medal count halfway through the championships. True, America – unlike a Caribbean nation – has ample snowy regions to develop winter athletes. But its ski community had long labored under a belief that Europeans were superior racers – a belief mirrored in results. Now, a decade after taking bold steps to reverse that trend, the US Ski Team is seeing promising dividends.
A new mentality of success
"We were sort of missing the mentality that we could do it," says Luke Bodensteiner, a former Olympian and US Nordic director from 2001 to 2008. "That's been alive with this group of athletes."
They include Kris Freeman, who missed bronze by 1.3 seconds earlier in the championships, and Andrew Newell, who had the second-fastest qualifying time in the sprint. In Nordic combined (in which athletes both race cross-country and jump), Todd Lodwick won double gold less than a year after coming out of retirement, and Billy Demong complemented that with bronze.
Mr. Bodensteiner, now a vice president for the US Ski & Snowboard Association (USSA), chalks up this week's success to a decision made after a disappointing 1998 Olympic showing. For the first time, the USSA started spending more on young athletes than on mature racers. Since then, he says, the budget has roughly tripled as fundraising improved.
That funding increase has enabled the team to provide better support to athletes, whose direct expenses on the World Cup circuit run about $30,000 a season – not counting staffing and off-season support.
Ski racing is in her blood - and her name