U.S. Kikkan in Nordic worlds
As a high schooler in Alaska, she earned the nickname "Kikkanimal'' from teammates who found her energy and drive in practice to be almost feral.
Kikkan Randall has channeled that wildness to become the most successful U.S. woman ever in cross-country skiing: first to reach a World Cup podium in early 2007, then first to win a World Cup race 11 months later (video), at the start of the 2007-2008 season.
Tuesday morning, she added another distinction to that resume: first U.S. woman to win a world championship medal in cross-country, a silver in the freestyle sprint at Liberec, Czech Republic. She finished just six-tenths of a second behind Arianna Follis of Italy in the .8-mile race.
What makes that even more remarkable is that a year ago Randall, 26, was hospitalized with a massive blood clot that easily could have killed her.
"At the end of the season, I was riding high after my World Cup win, feeling invincible, and all of a sudden it was a complete 180,'' Randall said by telephone from Liberec.
"I went from being on top of the world, on track for my goals, to all of a sudden being in a situation where my life could be threatened at any moment. Fifty percent of the people with blood clots the size of mine, it can go to the lungs and be fatal. It was definitely a very scary moment.''
The clot ran from her left hip past the knee and sent her to the hospital three times in a month: once complaining of pack pain, then to clear out the clot that turned out to be the cause of the pain, finally to clear it out a second time because it had re-formed. (Full details are on her website: "Scary Encounter With a Blood Clot' and "Back to the Hospital With Another Clot.'')
Doctors told Randall the causes could have included long airplane trips, compression of a vein or the chemical properties in birth control pills she was taking.
"It was a perfect storm,'' she said. "Any one of those factors on its own may have been a cause, but all of them combined certainly added up to the severity of it.''
She took steps to eliminate all the potential causes. Then, after getting married May 16, missing about six weeks of serious training and taking blood thinners for six months, Randall slowly worked herself back into medal-contending shape as her coach, Erik Flora, reminded her to be patient and concentrate on being ready for worlds.
"I wrote in my log book at the beginning of [last] summer that one of my goals was to win a world championship medal, and it took my breath away every time I looked at it, knowing it was going to be a big challenge,'' Randall said.
Randall is a two-time Olympian whose ninth place at the 2006 Games was best ever for a U.S. woman. All her best results have come in freestyle, also known as skating style. The sprint event at the 2010 Olympics is classic style, in which she has just one top 10 finish on the World Cup -- a seventh two years ago.
"I have been working really hard on my classic skiing, especially knowing the Olympics would be a classic sprint,'' she said. "I have been making small steps forward. I've got a year to really make it happen, even if it isn't as good a shot as in skate.''
Her medal Tuesday was the first by a U.S. cross-country skier in the world meet since Bill Koch's bronze in 1982. It gave Team USA five medals in these Nordic worlds -- one more than in all previous world meets combined. With the championships at the halfway point, the U.S. still leads the gold medal table with three and trails traditional Nordic power Norway just 6-5 in overall medals.
"When I first got into the sport, someone told me it was going to take 10 years to become a world-class athlete, and about 10 years ago, I started year-round training and started formulating my goals,'' she said. "I think a lot of athletes who have had success here did the same.''
Photo: Kikkan Randall on her way to a world silver medal. Credit: Jens Meyer/ Associated Press