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."
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
The sport's expense almost caused Randall, whose teenage ski dreams were recorded in full color in posters and photos plastered to her bedroom wall in Anchorage, to give up full-time skiing in favor of collegiate skiing. But her coach at the time encouraged her to stick with it, and she did.
She likes to tell people that ski racing is in her blood; she counts an aunt and an uncle among US Ski Team alumni. It's also in her name – a parental creation inspired by her dad's admiration for Christina "Kiki" Cutter, the first US skier ever to win a World Cup.
Now, she's carving her own path in history.
"Today was really fun," says head coach Pete Vordenberg of Randall's second-place sprint. "But looking back, the most fun was the days of training and dreaming together about days like today."
Next step: Olympic medals
Coach Vordenberg has made it a mission to ingrain in young athletes the dedication required for such moments, but he credits the whole US ski community with stepping it up, noting that Randall trains with the Alaska Pacific University team for much of the year. Already, he's looking ahead to the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, next year.
"We still have the Olympic medal out there – I think it's possible," he says, adding: "It's not that I think it, it's that there's evidence."
Randall's former coach, Jim Galanes, however, questions whether the team is advancing or whether she's just the next Bill Koch, the American skier who won bronze at Worlds back in 1982. "I haven't seen anyone publish anything that looks at [International Ski Federation scoring] points or percent behind [the race winner]," says Mr. Galanes, who has a unique affection for spreadsheets. "I would like to see more distance skiers making progress, and more sprint racers in the mix. That's how I would measure a successful national program."
But back in Liberec, the team is exuberant.
"It is so uplifting to see someone's hard work pay off in such a big way," says Laura Valaas, who trains with Randall in Alaska and will ski with her in the team events. "Also, Kikkan's the kind of teammate who makes history for the US like this and then will turn to me and say, 'See, it's possible, and you can do it too.' "
This week, the US qualified one skier in the men's sprint; Norway qualified five and took two medals. Nordic director John Farra would like to see that kind of depth for the US at the 2014 Olympics, but he says this week has proved that "we're fighting a fight we can win."