When Norway and Sweden contest Olympic cross-country races, their crown prince and king routinely attend.
So far, no one has heard of an American president coming to watch such a spectacle. But US skier Kikkan Randall had a dream just after Barack Obama was inaugurated that she was riding on Air Force One, telling him how great her sport was – and he promised to help raise its profile in America.
That’s just how Randall is. She dreams big. While Obama didn’t quite manage to do that for her, she did it on her own. And Wednesday night, another one of Randall’s dreams came true: She and teammate Jessie Diggins won the first-ever Olympic medal for US women’s cross-country skiing – and the first for the country since Bill Koch’s silver in 1976.
In the team sprint event on Wednesday, it came down to Norway, Sweden, and … the United States. Coming around the final bend, Diggins was trailing Sweden and had to swing wide on the outside. It came down to a photo finish.
“When Jessie crossed the line, I looked over to the scoreboard and I saw United States No. 1 and I just let out a big scream and ran over and tackled Jessie,” recalled Randall at a press conference afterward. “And she said, ‘Oh my gosh, did we just win the Olympics?’ and I said ‘Yeah!’ ”
It’s a medal more than a decade in the making, the fruit of a team culture that has raised every team member’s level of skiing. But it’s also especially sweet that it’s shared by Randall – the catalyst for America’s unprecedented success in women's cross-country skiing – and Diggins, who as a junior racer stood in line to get her autograph.
“Kikkan kind of started all this … there was a long time when she was the only woman we had on the team, she was out there by herself, with a bunch of guys running around Europe,” says Luke Bodensteiner, chief of sport for US Ski and Snowboard, who broke down in tears at the finish line. “She was the one early on who took all these girls – but in particular Jessie – under her wing and showed her the ropes and provided some leadership. So for them to team up like that is just kind of a Cinderella story.”
A team medal
Diggins kept Randall’s autograph for years – a little piece of cardboard box that she had torn off for Randall to sign, since there were no more posters left.
But slowly, Diggins pulled even with Randall. And then, when her erstwhile hero took a year off to have a baby in 2016, Diggins really came into her own and became the strongest US skier on the team.
So when it came down to a three-way sprint for the win tonight, the US team knew it was possible for her to pull through. No one digs deep like Diggins.
When she crossed the line, all the coaches’ radios went silent. What do you say when you’ve just won your team’s first gold medal? Besides, they were too busy being congratulated by other teams – the Swedes, the Norwegians, and big hugs from the Russians.
“We are very, very happy for Kikkan and Jessie – they are so worth this gold medal,” said Swedish skier Charlotte Kalla, who had won a gold and two silvers already in these Games before taking silver Wednesday night with teammate Stina Nilsson.
Meanwhile, in the finish area, the other women on the US team were also at a loss for words. Tonight they spoke in the language of tears – happy tears, but hard-won ones.
“We talked a lot about if we won a medal at the Olympics, it was going to be a team medal – whether you were on the snow that day or not – because everybody had worked together and pushed each other and believed in this,” said Randall, her cheeks painted with the letters USA and red, white, and blue stars. “It was really hard to select the team today. The coolest moment was when our team was right there in the finish.”
A culture of Yes We Can
Four years ago, Randall came into Sochi as the gold medal favorite in the individual sprint – and failed to advance out of the quarterfinals by .05 seconds.
“I remember Kikkan having to walk out of the [media] mix zone after her quarter with tears in her eyes,” recalls Sophie Caldwell, who was in her first season with the team and surprised many by qualifying for the sprint final herself. “Right before my final, she came up … and gave me a little pep talk, which I just couldn’t believe. Of course, she was bummed, but you could tell she was happy for me. I just couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have a teammate like that.”
Indeed, since the first moments after that disappointment in Sochi, Randall had turned her focus toward preparing herself and her teammates to excel in the team events – with these Olympics in mind.
“It was disappointing to not make that medal happen in Sochi,” said Randall. “But it’s probably been a blessing in disguise because it’s made us work harder over the last four years and it makes today even more special. It’s an amazing transformation.”
And Diggins has played a key part in that transformation.
“For me it feels like … a privilege to help change the culture of [US] skiing to Yes We Can,” she said.
So in a way, Obama was here after all.