In 2002, Kikkan Randall, 19, debuted at the Salt Lake City Olympics and finished 60th.
Later at the Games, she watched Sarah Hughes, 16, place 59 spots higher in figure skating. Randall felt sorry for Hughes. Here’s why:
“[Hughes] had reached the pinnacle of her sport so early and knowing that I would have 10 years or more to look forward to doing that,” Randall recalled one year ago, according to USA Today.
She just about proved prophetic.
“My goal is to medal in 2010,” Randall told the newspaper in 2002. “In this sport, you cannot have quick success. You’ve got to put in the time, and you usually peak when you are close to 30.”
Randall, an Alaskan who won a high school bodybuilding contest, did not win a medal at her third Olympics in 2010. She and Caitlin Compton took sixth in the team sprint.
It marked the best finish by U.S. women’s cross-country skiers in Olympic history, but Bill Koch remained the only American to win an Olympic medal in the sport (1976 silver).
Randall will turn 31 on New Year’s Eve. She seems to be peaking, and she is predicted to win a medal in Sochi following consistent World Cup and breakthrough World Championships success.
“I remember being at my first Olympics at Salt Lake … and dreaming about the skier I wanted to become to eventually compete for the first-ever Olympic medal in women’s cross-country skiing,” she said in October. “It really feels like the blink of an eye.”
Randall spent the last decade ascending in sprint skiing. She’s the two-time reigning World Cup leader in the discipline, clinching last season’s title by edging Norwegian all-around superstar Marit Bjoergen by .07 of a second in her 100th career World Cup start.
She teamed with Jessie Diggins to make history at the World Championships in February, winning the team sprint and the first world title by American cross-country skiers, men or women.
Randall also won a 2009 World Championships silver medal, individually, but the recent surge in U.S. depth means she (and all of U.S. cross-country skiing) have more chances at breaking the Olympic medal drought.
“We’re in contention [in relays] for the first time in my Games experience,” Randall told the International Ski Federation (FIS).
This season’s World Cup results will be an early indicator of potential Sochi success. Watch for Randall’s individual performances against Olympic champions Bjoergen and Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk and Norwegian Maiken Caspersen Falla.
Sweden, Finland and Norway are the top competition in the team sprint.
Here’s this season’s cross-country skiing World Cup/Olympic schedule:
Kuusamo, Finland — Nov. 29-Dec. 1
Lillehammer, Norway — Dec. 7-8
Davos, Switzerland — Dec. 14-15
Asiago, Italy — Dec. 21-22
Oberhof, Germany — Dec. 28-29 (Tour de Ski)
Lenzerheide, Switzerland — Dec. 31-Jan. 1 (Tour de Ski)
Cortina-Toblach, Italy — Jan. 3 (Tour de Ski)
Val di Fiemme, Italy — Jan. 4-5 (Tour de Ski)
Nove Mesto, Czech Republic — Jan. 11-12
Szklarska Poreba, Poland — Jan. 18-19
Toblach, Italy — Feb. 1-2
Olympics — Feb. 8-23
Lahti, Finland — March 1-2
Drammen, Norway — March 6
Oslo, Norway — March 8-9
Falun, Sweden — March 14-16 (World Cup Final)
2. Who will make the U.S. Olympic Team?
The U.S. will base its Olympic Team selections off World Cup results and FIS Points standings through the Nove Mesto World Cup stop.
Currently, it is one of eight nations to qualify the maximum quota of 20 Olympians, a sign of progress after the U.S. sent 11 cross-country skiers to the 2010 Olympics.
The quota standings will change over the next two months, and the U.S. won’t necessarily fill every quota spot it receives.
A nation may have no more than 12 Olympians for one gender and four skiers per Olympic event.
The top U.S. women’s cross-country skiers last season were Randall (third in the overall World Cup), Liz Stephen (20th overall), Holly Brooks (35th), Diggins (36th) and Ida Sargent (39th).
The top men last season were Andy Newell (29th overall, fifth sprint), Noah Hoffman (48th overall), Kris Freeman (75th) and Simi Hamilton (91st).
All but Diggins, Sargent and Hoffman were on the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team.
3. Norway’s domination
No nation owns more Olympic cross-country skiing medals than Norway, which has 96 and will likely win its 100th Olympic cross-country medal come February.
The world’s best male and female skiers are both Norwegian — Bjoergen and Petter Northug.
Bjoergen, 33, won three gold medals at the 2010 Olympics. She finished fourth in the 2012-13 World Cup overall standings despite missing the entire Tour de Ski after being hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat. She came back to win four golds and one silver at the World Championships.
Bjoergen is three career Olympic medals behind the most decorated female Winter Olympian of all time, retired Soviet cross-country skier Raisa Smetanina, who won 10.
Northug, 27, is the reigning Olympic and world champion in the grueling 50km and the reigning World Cup overall champion. One of his biggest rivals, Swiss Dario Cologna, could miss the rest of 2013 recovering from ankle surgery.
Still, there is concern about Northug. His best finish in three events in a pre-World Cup stop in Norway last week was 10th, and he took 63rd in one race.