The United States always has had a strong showing in the Winter Games, but not in cross-country skiing. The U.S. women’s team has never won a medal.
Alaskan skier Kikkan Randall came close in Sochi four years ago. Since then, U.S. women have been racking up big wins at international races. The team hopes to make history in 2018.
On a bright, cold training day before heading to South Korea, several Olympic athletes are training in the snowy mountains near Anchorage.
Kikkan Randall pushes one ski and glides on the other, like she’s skating on ice.
Randall is 5’5″ and all muscle, but this this five-time Olympian doesn’t take herself too seriously. Randall has bright pink highlights in her hair.
“The pink hair is going on about twelve years now,” Randall explained.
For decades, she said, it was downhill skiers like Picabo Street and Lindsey Vonn claiming the skiing spotlight.
“I was kind of frustrated at the time,” Randall said. “Because cross country skiing was kind of pushed off as this, ’Oh you guys just wear spandex and you disappear off into the woods and it’s kind of a lame sport,’ and I was like, ‘No sprint racing is coming up. We’re really fast and dynamic,’ so I thought I want to show the fun side, so I put pink tips in my hair.”
With pink tips in her hair and multiple podiums in international races under her belt, Randall’s time to shine came four years ago at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Peggy Shinn was sitting in the stands by the finish line. Shinn is a sports journalist and author of “World Class: The Making of the Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team,” a book about the women’s cross country ski team.
“And I was all excited because this was going to be the race where the U.S. was going to win a medal,” Shinn said.
Women’s cross country skiing made its Olympic debut in 1952, but the American women didn’t even field a team until 1972.
Since many of these races take place in their backyard, the Scandinavians have dominated the sport. In 2014, though, the Americans were set to earn their first Olympic medal.
In the quarterfinals of a sprint race, Kikkan Randall lunged across the line.
“And there was this amazing hush that went over the crowd,” Shinn explained, “and nobody breathed for a few seconds when they realized what had happened– Kikkan Randall was not advancing to the semi-finals.”
Randall still chokes up when she talks about Sochi.
“That’s the beauty of the Olympics,” Randall said, “and also the agony– it’s one day and if it doesn’t quite go right, that’s your chance.”
But another beauty of the Olympics? They come around every four years.
This year, the American team is deeper. And spending months together racing in Europe every year means they’re closer than other teams. They’re also more confident than ever.
“We definitely have a chance at a medal,” said American skier Jessie Diggins. Diggins has been racking up her own set of medals at international races.
Diggins and Anchorage skier Sadie Bjornsen earned bronze in the classic team sprint at the 2017 World Championships in Lahti, Finland.
“To the line they come– Jessie Diggins, of the United States, gets the Bronze for the U.S.” excalimed the race announcer.
Once she crossed the finish line, Diggins collapsed on the snow with her skis still attached.
“That’s probably the best feeling there is,” Diggins said.
A feeling the American women could replicate for the first time ever at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“And that just gives me goosebumps,” Diggins said, “because I know that we are coming into this with a serious fighting chance and we’re going to be swinging hard.”
The American women will come out swinging at their first of six cross-country ski races on Saturday, Feb. 10.