Condensed from Jim Caple of espnW:
Tuesday was supposed to be more than just a great day for Kikkan Randall, it was also to be a great day for American cross-country skiing, its best day in nearly four decades.
America has won only one Olympic medal in the sport, and that was 38 very long years ago when Bill Koch took the silver medal at the 1976 Innsbruck Games. That’s nearly four decades of endless frustration, disappointment and losses by very large margins. The United States has been such an underdog in the sport that four-time Olympian Kris Freeman compares America beating cross-county powerhouse Norway to a Little League team beating the Yankees.
But Tuesday was going to be oh, so deliciously different.
Randall, the 31-year-old Alaskan skier with pink-streaked hair, won five World Cup races last year and won back-to-back World Cup races last month. She is a two-time world sprint champion. She said the Sochi course was favorable to her style. Everyone . . . picked her to win gold in Tuesday’s sprint free race.
Instead, Randall didn’t even reach the semifinals.
She started off well in the fifth quarterfinal heat, taking the lead by skiing powerfully up the 1.3-kilometer course’s hill. She held the lead as the athletes entered the course stadium and raced toward the finish line.
Then, Germany’s Denise Herrmann passed her. (Because the top two skiers advance from the quarterfinals, Randall still was in good shape, though.)
But then Norway’s Marit Bjoergen passed her.
Because the two skiers with the next two fastest times overall also advance, Randall’s chances still were looking decent.
But then Italy’s Gaia Vuerich passed her just before the finish line.
Randall still had a chance to advance as the second qualifier (aka, a “lucky loser”) if her time had been fast enough, but it wasn’t. After waiting many anxious seconds, she learned she had been too slow.
“That final gear wasn’t quite there and then I fell apart there right before the finish and didn’t get a lunge in,” she said. Official results indicated she was actually five-hundredths behind Vuerich. “I’m sure I’ll be living those moments hundreds of time in my head.”
After a television interview. . . Randall walked down the steps to the mixed zone to speak with reporters. Tears flowing down her cheeks, she leaned against a barrier and buried her head in her arms.
This was only natural, given that she carried the tremendous weight of her country’s hopes for cross-country. Randall didn’t just want a medal for herself, she wanted a medal to boost the sport throughout America. She wants more Americans out on the trail, learning how wonderful and fun her sport is while improving their health and fitness.
“It’s rough, but that’s sport, right?” Randall said of her disappointing day. “You prepare your whole life for something like this and it’s over in 2½ minutes.”
It’s especially rough because of the cross-country system that alternates sprint styles every Olympics. One Olympics, the sprint will be raced classic style; the next it will be free style. The free sprint, Randall’s specialty, will not be held again until the 2022 Olympics, when she is 39.
I admire Randall for going all in on medaling, but wonder if she’ll think it was worth it. “The joy,” some wise person once said, “is in the journey.” I’m sure Randall isn’t feeling too joyful right now, but in time I hope she feels the effort was worthwhile. That she has positive memories from some training sessions; and other victories; and her world travels; and most especially, her friendships with teammates, fellow competitors, trainers and coaches. Despite the bitter disappointment of not achieving her ultimate goal, I hope she feels her life is richer as a result of the attempt.
Sometimes I’m asked if I’m going to do another long distance triathlon. The key question for me is whether I could enjoy the extensive training required. If I do re-up, I will think of the race as just one small part of the larger equation.
Although I get the allure of sporadic, specific instances of accentuated risk/reward like Olympic competition, I prefer stitching together meaningful daily routines that tip the balance towards deeper relationships, better physical health, and greater spiritual enlightenment. Yesterday was a great day not just because it was my birthday, but because of small, simple joys—a longish morning swim workout; a green tea latte; unexpected emails from distant friends; unexpected sunshine; a walk with the wife and labradude; phone conversations with my two fav college students; and dinner out at Gardner’s.
Gardner’s is a bit fancy pants, but Kikkan Randall taught me something today. Don’t live too far in the future. Find joy everyday.