Technically, every mother deserves a gold medal.
But Kikkan Randall, the only mom competing for Team USA in the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, literally earned one Wednesday, combining with Jessie Diggins to win the United States’ first medal in women’s Olympic cross-country competition. (The duo edged their Swedish competitors in the team sprint free final.) The medal is the first for American cross-country skiers in the Olympics since Bill Koch won a silver in 1976.
For Randall, 35, PyeongChang marks her fifth Olympics appearance and first since the arrival of son Breck 22 months ago. Not that Breck was around to see his mom win gold; he’s in Canada with his grandparents, and Randall was missing him terribly, especially after he often joined her during her international schedule of events. (The family calculated it would cost in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $20,000 to bring Breck and a caregiver to South Korea, according to FiveThirtyEight.)
“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, whose home town is Anchorage, told the Huffington Post before winning gold. “But he is doing great with his grandparents. I FaceTimed with him tonight, and he’s having a great time. I know he’s in a good place, so now I can focus on what I need to do.”
Randall missed a season of racing because of her pregnancy, during which she adopted a shortened version of her twice-daily training routine, according to the Associated Press. She stuck with weight training and interval work and was still doing training runs through her seventh month of pregnancy. She took two to three weeks off after Breck’s birth to “really take a chill,” but then it was back to training, and back to success. Randall brought Breck along in a jogger for training hikes and runs, pumped breast milk between workouts and scheduled his feedings into her routine, according to the AP. Meanwhile, several other new moms in high-level skiing started a Facebook group and injected a spirit of camaraderie into their hectic lives.
And Randall — who intentionally positioned her childbirth midway between two Olympics and in a non-World Cup year — has attracted admirers for her decision to stick with her craft.
“In a sport like cross-country skiing where it takes so long to get to the top, you really just start getting to the fun part when you’re kind of in your prime childbearing age,” Randall told the Boston Globe’s Tara Sullivan. “It was something where I didn’t want to have to make a choice either way. I was curious to see if I could do it. And thankfully I’d had an amazing career to that point and I was going to be happy no matter what happened. I’ve come back surprisingly strong. I love being a mom.”
Randall’s husband, Jeff Ellis, works for the International Ski Federation, so he works while she races, with a similar travel schedule. Breck’s grandparents and family friends regularly help out with childcare.
“It’s taken a lot of support. My husband and my family have been incredible traveling with us all through the winters so that we could have the sport and I could focus on training,” Randall said after Wednesday’s victory. “But it’s been so fun. It’s been a new challenge. There was a huge motivation to come back to contribute the team efforts here. That’s what really helped me make through the comeback.”
At her first Olympics, the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, Randall’s best result was 44th; “young, naive and determined, I still dreamt of standing on that podium someday,” she wrote. And it’s funny how things work out, because even amid all the wonderful distractions and demands of parenthood, these are the Olympics in which Randall won gold.
“I don’t think I’ve quite gotten back to the level I was at four years ago,” she told the Huffington Post, “when I came into the Olympics as a gold medal favorite. But I feel darn close.”
Randall, who finished no better than fifth in her other three events in South Korea, plans to retire when these Games end. Because this is an equal-time blog, we’ll also point out that Team USA says 20 dads are competing for the United States in PyeongChang. The group’s only mom, though, became one of Wednesday’s stars.
“I know that what’s most important is to get my best effort out of myself,” Randall wrote for Time, “and that win or lose, I have a smiling little boy that will be happy to see me.”
Adam Kilgore in Daegwallyeong, South Korea, contributed to this report.
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