Families, friends and even some former Olympians gathered in downtown Anchorage Wednesday to celebrate Alaska’s biggest contingent ever to compete at the Olympic Games.
Under a red tent, the 2018 Olympians signed posters, hugged friends and met fans — of all ages.
“I keep meeting all the grandmas,” Sadie Bjornsen exclaimed. “Most times you’re meeting the kids.”
Bjornsen is a two-time Olympic cross-country skier.
“I got an email from this grandma the other day [that said] ‘I think you need to step it up and stop being so humble and find your true [potential] — how good you are,'” Bjornsen said, laughing. “And I was like, ‘Spoken like a true grandma!'”
Bjornsen was one of ten cross-country skiers from Alaska at the this year’s winter games. Many of the athletes were at Wednesday’s celebration, greeting those grandmas, hugging their friends and posing for pictures with fans.
One of the Alaskan fan favorites from the 2018 Olympics was figure skater Keegan Messing.
“It was so cool to have the support of Alaska behind me going into the Olympics,” Messing said. “It was unbelievable.”
Messing is from Girdwood, but represented his mother’s home country of Canada at his first winter games. Sporting a red flannel hat with the Canadian maple leaf, Messing grinned as he talked about competing in South Korea.
“I almost broke into tears like 30 seconds before I was getting onto the ice,” Messing admitted. “My eyes wandered up and I saw the rings, and I was like, ‘I’m about to skate at the Olympics.'”
Hundreds of people in the crowd cheered as their hometown Olympians took the stage in-person or on the big screen. Paralympic skier Andrew Kurka recorded a message for the crowd.
“I wanted to say thank you for taking this moment to celebrate Alaska’s victory as athletes and I wish I was there with my gold and silver medals to share it with all of you. There’s nowhere I would rather be. [I] love you,” Kurka said.
Kurka won a gold in the men’s downhill, earning the first medal ever for an Alaskan athlete at the Winter Paralympic Games. The next day, Kurka won silver in the super giant slalom, or super-G.
It was an emotional evening, especially for the other Alaskan Olympic gold medalist– Kikkan Randall. Randall’s brother Tanner was in the crowd dressed as a look-alike. Her dad, Ronn Randall carried around a two-foot tall cardboard cut-out of Kikkan’s face.
And there was another superfan waiting to greet her– Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
“To have a gold medal come back by an Alaskan– a female, a mom, who we have all been following for years and years– it’s pretty cool,” Murkowski said.
Randall was competing in her fifth and final Olympics. In her last race, Randall and Jessie Diggins teamed up for the skate sprint.
It was down the final stretch that Diggins pulled ahead of the Swedish skier.
“I like to think I played a little part in that,” Randall told the crowd, “because as Jessie is coming down the finish, I’m standing next to the Swedish girl, and we’re both yelling as loud as we can at our teammates, as if we can will them to the finish faster,” Randall said, laughing.
With a fresh strip of pink in her hair and her gold medal around her neck, Randall also talked about the disappointment of not medaling in 2014 and how, with the help of her teammates and support from Alaska, she came back in 2018 and made history — winning the first medal ever for the American women’s cross-country ski team.
“This may be the first [medal] in women’s cross-country [skiing],” Randall said, to hundreds of her fans in the crowd. “But it’s not going to be the last. They’re just going to come flooding in now. Thank you so much!”