Anchorage-raised Olympian Kikkan Randall knows the hefty metal disc like the back of her hand.
She’s displayed it in thousands of photos, brought it all over the country with her and amusedly watched her 3-year-old son, Breck, tote it around.
But for the longest time, the Alaskan cross-country skier had no clue what it was like to hold an Olympic gold medal — or any Olympic medal for that matter. She didn’t want to. Not until one came into her possession.
“I never actually knew how much they weighed,” said Randall, who spoke to a sold-out audience on Wednesday afternoon at Centennial Hall. “When I leaned over and they put that medal around my neck, I almost fell off the podium.”
In a 53-minute talk for the third and final installment of the Pillars of America Speakers Series presented by the Juneau Glacier Valley Rotary Club, Randall detailed the long and arduous road that led up to her gold medal-winning performance in the women’s team sprint freestyle at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.
Like the medal that almost pulled her off the podium, Randall said her chase of Olympic glory sometimes felt too heavy to shoulder. It was only by breaking up the enormous goal into smaller, bite-sized ones, that she was able to come out on top.
“As a fellow Alaskan, I can tell you the future is wide open,” Randall said. “Don’t be afraid to think about the future that you really want. If I hadn’t as a young kid dreamed about winning an Olympic medal in a sport that it had never been done before (for American women), if I hadn’t envisioned what that future would look like even though there was nothing to tell me it was possible, I would of never set out on this path.”
Randall raced in her first Olympics in 2002, and it was around then she came up with a 10-year plan with her coaches to become the first American woman to win an Olympic medal.
“We planned out what it would take to win an Olympic medal from where I was at 44th place in my first Olympics,” Randall said. “We take that top level and start building back and building back and building back and building back and by the time we finished all the steps, it was going to take me take 10 years to reach that level.”
Randall’s race in PyeongChang would become one of the defining moments of 2018 Olympics. Randall and teammate Jessie Diggins upset Sweden, Norway and other cross-country skiing blue bloods in epic fashion. Diggins, who skied the final leg of the race, came on strong in the final stretch and won by just 0.19 seconds.
Randall said she’s adopted the same goal-setting tactics to overcome her latest hurdle, a breast cancer diagnosis that came to her attention on May 31, 2018, just three months after earning the long sought after gold. Randall has finished chemotherapy and radiation and around the end of January moved back from Alaska to her home in British Columbia, and is optimistic she’s now cancer free.
“This is not something that I’m just going to check off the list, like, ‘Great, cancer, totally conquered that, done with it,’” Randall said. “It’s always something that will be there lurking. But I’m not going to think about that. I’m going to think about what I have control over. And I’m going to get back to thinking about all the things that I want to do in my life. I know that everything amazing I’ve ever had in my life, has come after something difficult.”
Floyd Dryden Middle School sixth graders Mary Canapary and Bristol Casperson were among the hundreds of youth in the audience. Both said they were inspired by Randall’s story.
“I thought that it was really cool how she kept going and didn’t stop believing in herself and she wouldn’t give up even though she went through a bunch of hard things in her life,” Canapary said.
“She’s really inspiring,” Casperson added. “It’s so cool that she came from Alaska and she was the first woman to do this.”
The Empire interviewed Randall prior to her Pillars talk about coming to Juneau and overcoming her latest challenge.
Juneau Empire: Why did you decide you wanted to come talk at the Pillars of America Series?
Kikkan Randall: I actually got invited by the Rotary to come and speak. I think the Rotary recognized that I was an Alaskan and had an interesting story coming off of the Olympics last year and the gold medal and knowing that a lot of kids are coming to the program. It was a great chance to share my story and hopefully inspire others to be healthy and chase big dreams.
Empire: Even before the cancer diagnosis and gold medal, it seems you’ve always been very comfortable at opening yourself up to others. Has it been a big challenge to remain that way as you’ve navigated through the cancer?
Randall: Surprisingly, not at all. My first thought when this happened was I wanted to be open about what I was going through because I know how important it is to have a community around me and support. But I also hoped that by sharing what I was going through it would help me stay accountable to some of the things I wanted to do like staying positive and staying active. I also hoped to be a positive inspiration for staying active through treatment and staying positive through tough times. For every little thing I’ve put into it, I’ve gotten it back 100-fold.
Empire: One of the quotes I loved reading is cancer patients aren’t told what they can do. What are some of the things you wish more cancer patients were told that they can do when they’re battling this terrible illness?
Randall: One of the first things I discovered, I had people talk to me and express their shock that someone who was totally healthy, has done all these things, is susceptible to cancer. They kind of made the joke of, ‘Oh man, if you did all the right things and got cancer, then why do anything right?’
I have to say that while all those healthy habits didn’t save me from getting cancer in the first place, it has certainly made it a lot smoother to navigate through treatment both physically and mentally because I came into it with health and with some of these healthy habits. … I think that when you’re in the moment and it’s feeling very daunting and intense and you’re uncomfortable, it’s easy to be consumed by those overwhelming thoughts. But for me I just kept reminding myself that this was a moment and I was going to have the next moment and things would get better. I just kept telling myself, ‘It’s going to be OK. This moment’s tough, but it’s going to get better.’