EVERYTHING’S BEEN COMING UP ROSES for the women of the U.S. cross country skiing team. World Championships. World Cup podiums. World Cup Globes. Unprecedented media attention heading into the 2014 Winter Games. And though the pink hair, face paint, glitter, and stars and stripes leg warmers with which they adorn themselves are merely visual mementos of the group’s enthusiasm, ask Kikkan Randall about the team’s secret sauce, and she makes liberal use of a four-letter word: Love. As in, “we love what we do.”
Or as distance specialist Liz Stephen recently tweeted, “Spread the love, dominate the world.”
And how. Since Kikkan stepped atop her first World Cup podium in 2007, her teammates have stepped up their games, too. Last year Randall and Jessie Diggins took gold at the World Championships in Val de Fiemme, Italy, a first for the U.S. cross country ski team.
“ [Last year’s] season was a dream,” says Randall. “Each of us had personal bests in one race or another. We had the best ever team results we’ve ever had.”
“It used to be a top 30 was good” skier Holly Brooks told a reporter from TeamUSA.com last year. “Now we want top-10s.”
Ask and ye shall receive. As the 2013-2014 season revved up last weekend, Randall won her first sprint race against strong squad of Norwegians, and Sadie Bjornsen and Stephen finished in the top six in heavily contested races. A sign of things to come in Sochi later this year? Perhaps. But as assiduously as the U.S. cross country women work on attaining their individual and collective athletic goals, there’s a bigger theme at play here — a strange attractor of sorts — that creates the foundation of the team. It has something to do with that “love and dominate” dictum of Stephen’s, which actually is the slogan of Fast and Female, an educational non-profit founded in 2005 by Canadian Olympic gold medalist Chandra Crawford, who wanted to share her love of cross country with young girls and teens at an age when mentorship and support are critical to propel them into endeavors they might not ordinarily seek out on their own – like taking up skiing or tackling a STEM course.
“I…really feel we need to do something to counteract all the negative propaganda and body image issues that young women suffer,” Crawford told an interviewer in a 2010 podcast. “And I think being physically active is a big part of the solution.”
The meta-message of Crawford’s curriculum is that it’s fine to be both fiery fast and eminently feminine. The organization’slogo, which is shocking pink, features a round-faced pigtailed cross-country grom wearing racing shades. Every member of the U.S. women’s cross country ski team serves as a Fast and Female ambassador – this despite the rigors of an 800-hour training year, endless travel, raising funds to cover their travel expenses, and racing in Europe for five months each year. And Randall chairs the organization in the United States.
It’s almost as if the more the U.S. women’s cross country ski team pass their love of the sport forward, the more the sport gives back to them.
“I can look back through my career so far and see how many times I’ve benefitted from my involvement in sports,” she says, “from developing the confidence to chase after my athletic goals, meeting friends, getting to travel the world, getting to represent my country, having this strong and fit body that allows me to go out and do what I love — all of those positive things – I feel super passionate about passing that on and encouraging every girl out there to get involved in sports.”
For good reason. Studies funded by Billie Jean King’s Women’s Sports Foundation show that benefits from participating in sports lead to greater self-confidence, improved physical and emotional health, and higher levels of family satisfaction. WSF cites lack of safety, transportation, adequate school budgets, and dearth of positive role models as reasons for the tailing off of a girl’s participation in organized sports. Social stigma inhibits participation as well, with some young female athletes feeling self-conscious about appearing too masculine, or even gay.
On April 3, prior to the Tahoe SuperTour spring series, the members of the U.S. women’s team toted Fast and Female to the Auburn Ski Club. About 40 girls and 12 ambassadors participated, and according to those who both observed and participated that day, the group generated enough kinetic energy to power Tahoe City.
“I feel like they brought their everything-ness with them,” says Truckee’s Eleanore Hamilton, 13, who attended the program. “That ‘ness’ I feel like are their accomplishments, their stories, their energy, their close friendships to each other. I thought that bringing that to this group they made us feel like we had that ‘ness,’ too.”
Far West coach and former Olympian Nancy Fiddler was also at the Truckee event. Not in her customary role as a leader, but this time as a keenly interested observer, and a key stakeholder.
“I was picking up on this vibe, you know. It’s here. And the kids were digging it. I definitely think it’s a way to bring girls into the sport, and to say it’s ok to be a girl, too.”
That message wasn’t lost on Hamilton.
“I can be a girl and be fun and sparkly and pink, but I can also reach my goals and be athletic and do big things. I think all those women really made me see that.”
“I think what we’re most excited about is that the success we have gives us an opportunity to share our story more,” says Randall. “And our ultimate goal is to get more people on cross country skis, more people living a healthy, active lifestyle, and you know, we love what we do.”
There’s that word again. Whether it’s the power of Fast and Female pink and that love psych that powers the magnificent seven skiers of the U.S. women’s team, it’s obvious they’re is in the pink of health. With the Winter Games in the offing, Kikkan, Liz, Holly, Jessie, Sadie, Sophie and Ida aren’t just hopefuls; they’re contenders, and in Randall’s case, an odds-on favorite. As the reigning World Cup sprint champion for the past two seasons, she’s currently favored to take Olympic gold in that event.
Women’s head coach Matt Whitcomb concedes expectations for his team are running high, but he feels the team is battle-ready after having excelled at the World Championships; he makes clear that wins in Sochi will naturally follow from doing well in run-up World Cup races.
“You can look at it rationally: if we’re successful leading into the Games, then we can just keep on coasting. The opposite of that is that if we don’t have success in those specific Olympic events leading into the Games – there will be 20-some opportunities to practice during championship events – we’re going to know what we can realistically expect by the time the Games comes around.”
And it’s not just the women’s cross country team whose crowning moment may arrive in Sochi. The women of the U.S. ski jumping team will make history by simply showing up. They will compete in its first Winter Games this year after having prevailed in a years-long campaign to convince the International Olympic Committee to grant their sport Olympic status. Lindsey Van, the U.S. World Champion who led the fight for approval (in the face of remarks from International Ski Federation’s grand panjandrum, Gian Franco Kasper, who in 2005 dissed jumping on the basis that the sport was injurious to a woman’s reproductive organs), and she and her teammates cheered in April of 2011, when IOC chief Jacques Rogge and Company finally announced the sport as fit for the Olympics.
Though the team was thrilled to have been granted entry into the Olympic Games, it’s been nothing but hard work to prepare for the games ever since.
“It’s pedal to the metal you know. Training as usual. Everybody’s pretty focused and we’re all just trying to prepare for the winter like any other season but obviously the season means a little bit more, so it’s good. Everybody’s really supportive. There’s a kind of mutual understanding that we all did this together. We’ve worked this hard to be where we are and let’s enjoy the ride.”
And what a ride it has been. The attitudinal and athletic shifts in women’s Nordic skiing have been many years in the making; Fiddler, a 14- time national champion, competed on the women’s national team from the ‘80s through the early ‘90s.
“The teams that I was on never had that unity and we didn’t have the harmony that I’m seeing in the women’s team today,” she says.
Fiddler also remembers the blatantly sexist attitudes that existed on the team during her tenure, even twenty years after the enactment of Title IX.
“I could tell you stories that would never be publishable, but yeah, I overheard things said by responsible men affiliated with our team that were disgusting, and involved us. I don’t forget that stuff. And I know it’s not happening anymore, and I know that women are being taken seriously.”
Very seriously. The antediluvian coaching norms have given way to a more participatory leadership style, characterized by asking and giving rather than telling and demanding.
“I can count on one hand the number of nights Matt didn’t come around to check in on us in some way,” says Liz Stephen of Whitcomb. “Even if he was with us all day, he’ll ask, ‘How was your day?’ And I think that those little things add up. He wants to know if we’re doing ok. Whether it’s ten at night or whether he just got home, he figures out how to make sure we’re ok.”
“You can tell how much he cares, and how hard he works, because when a championship is over, he crashes for about four or five days — he’s so blown out,” says Randall. “He just throws everything in – all of our coaches are that way – I mean, they all got incredibly sick and tired after the world championships, because they invested so much time and energy into making sure that we had everything we needed to perform.”
Whitcomb is both a product of exemplifies a new breed of coaches who came from private school or club programs — in Whitcomb’s case, the Burke Mountain Academy and New England Nordic — who are not only well-trained, but also understand that commitment to skiing begins with a love for the sport. Somehow, he and his kin have both benefitted from club skiing and perpetuated it. It’s a virtuous circle that’s playing out across the country, according to Fiddler.
“When I first started coaching in ’93, the quality of the girls racing at Junior Nationals were the best in the country, but it’s nothing like the depth and the quality we have now racing at those same levels,” she says.
Says Fiddler, “I am super excited and happy about where women’s skiing is right now, and I feel for whatever reason that I am a part of that. Whatever we did 20 years ago was part of the process that was building the team that’s going to Sochi. Everybody in the country should feel proud of this if you’ve had anything to do with skiing in the last 20 years. We’ve all been working towards this. As a collective Nordic community, it’s all our victory.”
Though an Olympic medal in Sochi would bestow a material talisman of that victory, to
Randall and her teammates, gold, silver and bronze pale by comparison to pink.
“To leave a legacy after they retire would be the best accomplishment,” says Whitcomb. “I think that would exceed the goals of World Championship and Olympic medals. Something that would sustain after they retire.”
“I want to tell you something about Kikkan,” says Eleanore Hamilton. “When I was around her at Fast and Female, I totally felt like she had so much passion. She just loves what she does, and she does so much. She smiles, and I feel that love coming out in her smile, and she just can’t contain all the love that she has for her sport and her teammates inside of her. And it was so cool to be around her – and I knew she felt that.”
“I love continuing this circle of inspiration,” says Randall. I was lucky to have great role models growing up, and I want to inspire the next generation, and hopefully they become the leaders of tomorrow.”