When I first started dreaming of going to the Olympics as a cross-country skier, no American woman had ever medaled at the Olympics, World Championships or even the World Cup. The sport was dominated by Europeans and there was no history to show it was possible to be successful. Yet for some reason, deep down, I believed I could become one of the fastest skiers in the world.
Skiing in my first Olympics at age 19, I got a serious dose of reality. My best result was 44th and I was minutes behind the medal winners. Young, naïve and determined, I still dreamt of standing on that podium someday. I was fortunate to have some coaches that didn’t think I was totally crazy and we crafted a road map of how I would get to the top step. It would take at least 10 years we figured.
So, I got to work on my road map. My progress was slow in the beginning, but I was always good at focusing on the small goals right in front of me and seeing success even in the smallest places. As the years clicked by, I started to see gradual improvement.
At my second Olympics, I finally had a breakthrough and finished in the top 10, the best-ever finish for an American woman in cross-country skiing. From there I started to tackle some other firsts: first World Cup podium, first World Cup win and first World Championship medal. In 2012, I proved I had finally arrived as a top contender, winning the Overall World Cup Sprint title. But it wasn’t all success. I had my fair share of ups and downs and had to keep searching for the small victories in every race.
My first few years racing on the World Cup full-time I was the only woman on the team. As a North American racer, this meant living out of a suitcase for months at a time and traveling around with four other guys and a mostly male staff. I missed having female teammates and was especially disappointed to have to sit out all the relay events.
I worked with the U.S. Ski Team to bring on more women and pushed to have more training sessions where we could work together and push each other. I also created opportunities to train with girls from other countries. Even though they were my competitors, I knew we could learn from each other and probably have some fun along the way. After my third Olympics, my dream to have a women’s team started to develop. We had some young talented girls making their debut on the World Cup and I got to be the experienced veteran showing them the ropes. We all made the commitment to work together. This positive team atmosphere fueled my own success.
Going into the 2014 Olympics I was a gold medal favorite. My whole career had been building up to this ultimate goal and I was more prepared and more confident than I had ever been. When the day came for my big race, I laid it all out on the course and in the end, I came up five hundredths of second short. The blink of an eye.
I left Sochi without a medal and had a big choice to make. To continue on for another four years to chase that elusive medal, or call it a successful career and start a family. Ultimately, I decided to do both.
My plan required some careful planning — and a little bit of luck — but in the summer of 2015 I got pregnant and sat out the 2016 racing season. Although I had to miss that season of racing, I was excited to see how much I would be able to train during my pregnancy and was motivated for the challenge of returning to competition as a mother.
My pregnancy went smoothly and in the spring of 2016 we welcomed our son Breck into our family. Within a month I got the clearance from my doctor and worked my way back into full time training. It took patience and the belief that I could work back into shape. I was pleasantly surprised by what a powerful and positive influence becoming a mother was on my ski racing.
Last winter we packed up the family and spent five months on the World Cup circuit together. This included a lot of gear, logistics and support from our parents, but we had an amazing time. I didn’t always get the recovery time I was accustomed to, but I got to spend a lot of time with my son. The results panned out too. Just hours before I won a World Championship bronze medal, I was changing diapers and washing out bottles. Turns out baby chores are great for settling nerves.
Now I’m focused on the 2018 Olympics, my last chance to go for an Olympic medal. With my body back to 100% and my new balance as a mom and athlete mostly figured out, I’ve carried out my preparation with focus, efficiency and no regrets. While the goals are as big as they’ve ever been, I have all the experience I’ve gained to remind me to focus on the small things I can control right in front of me. I know that what’s most important is to get my best effort out of myself, and that win or lose, I have a smiling little boy that will be happy to see me.
As my ski racing career draws to a close, I’m most proud of the path I’ve helped create for American skiers to believe they can be the best in the world. By learning through both success and failure, and by helping cultivate my teammates’ abilities, I’ve taken my own career further than I ever thought was possible and developed amazing friendships worth far more than medals. I also hope I’ve set a good example for all female athletes that it’s possible to combine family and sport with the right support and the right attitude.
To learn more about Randall and her teammates, visit teamusa.org. The live 2018 Winter Olympics begin February 8.