Americans don't medal in cross-country skiing at the Olympic Winter Games. It just doesn't happen — until now.
Neither Kikkan Randall nor her teammate Jessie Diggins had been born yet the last time an American took home an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing. For decades, America's attention and medals have gone to their Alpine counterparts.
But on Feb. 21, in a near-photo finish, Randall, 35, and Diggins, 26, broke an American dry spell more than 15,330 days long to win a gold medal in the women's cross-country team sprint. It's the first medal for the women's cross-country team, and it comes 42 years after the last U.S. cross-country skiing medal by any gender, a silver earned by Bill Koch in 1976.
Randall and Diggins won the race in heart-stopping fashion, securing the top spot by just 0.19 seconds.
"The goal was ski smart, stay out of trouble, and just stay strong at the end, and yeah, it really paid off," Randall said in an interview with NBC after her race.
This is what history looks and sounds like. @jessdiggs and @kikkanimal win @TeamUSA's first ever gold medal in cros… https://t.co/bdKD0tMv49— NBC Olympics (@NBC Olympics) 1519234287
This huge win is a longtime coming for Randall who started her Olympic career 16 years ago at the Salt Lake City Games.
In appearances across five Winter Games, Randall had 18 attempts in multiple events but had never finished higher than sixth place, including a heartbreaking defeat in Sochi in a quarterfinal round.
"That's the beauty of the Olympics and also the agony — it's one day. And if it doesn't quite go right, that's your chance," Randall said in an interview with NPR.
Kikkan Randall during the Sochi Winter Olympics. Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images.
After earning the trip to Pyeongchang for her fifth Olympics, Randall like many athletes, stared down the possibility of ending her impressive athletic career without making it to the podium.
But with perseverance, grit, and the support of amazing teammates, she pulled off what previously seemed impossible.
Jessica Diggins (L) and Kikkan Randall celebrate as they win gold during the Cross Country Ladies' Team Sprint Free Final. Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images.
Especially notable about her is that, in addition to her history-making gold-medal performance, of the 244 athletes on Team USA, Randall is the only mother.
There are 20 fathers on the team, but Randall is the only mom in the group. (Team USA doesn't disclose whether athletes chose adoption or had children pass away, so we recognize that this is a pretty limiting definition of parenthood.) While there's no official reason given for the mom disparity, it could have a lot to do with pregnancy and childbirth affecting a person's body and the fact many child-rearing duties are still relegated to women.
Balancing the physical, emotional, and mental demands of being a pro-athlete and primary caregiver is a challenge and commitment few among us could even fathom. But it's one Randall not only accepted — but surmounted.
While her toddler son, Breck, stayed with his grandparents in Canada instead of making the trip to South Korea, he was never far from Randall's mind.
"I won’t get to see him for a full month, which is going to be really hard because I’ve just gotten so adapted to life chasing around a toddler," Randall told The Huffington Post before the competition. "But he is doing great with his grandparents. ... I know he’s in a good place, so now I can focus on what I need to do."
And focus she did. All the way to Team USA's first gold medal in a sport she's devoted the last 20 years of her life to.
"Did we just win the Olympics?" Diggins asked.
"Yeah, we did!" Randall said.
Kikkan Randall (red bib) and Jessica Diggins celebrate on the podium. Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images.