Getty Images

Kikkan Randall, cancer free and moved by running legend, tackles New York City Marathon

Leave a comment

Olympic cross-country skiing champion Kikkan Randall will run the New York City Marathon on Sunday to celebrate last year’s successful breast cancer treatment, but she mentally signed up for the 26.2-mile race several years before her diagnosis.

Randall felt the marathon itch while in Norway for competition, long before winning the U.S.’ first cross-country skiing gold medal with Jessie Diggins in the team sprint at her fifth and final Olympics in PyeongChang.

The Norwegian organization Aktiv Against Cancer invited Randall to an event. She learned that Aktiv was co-founded in 2007 by Norwegian Grete Waitz, the record nine-time NYC Marathon champion who was diagnosed with cancer in 2005 and died in 2011 at age 57. She learned that its mission was to make physical activity a regular part of cancer treatment.

“It immediately made a lot of sense to me,” Randall said. Randall, along with ski teammates, committed to Aktiv events every time they were in Oslo for a race. They worked out with cancer patients who were doing exercises in hospitals.

“A few of my teammates who were contemplating retirement, we all kind of said, when we retire from ski racing, let’s go run the marathon, raise some money for Aktiv,” Randall said.

That was the plan two winters ago. Randall would wrap up her skiing career at the February 2018 Winter Games, then run the November 2018 New York City Marathon for Aktiv. She would also receive an inspiration award from Aktiv at a pre-race luncheon.

But two months after the Olympics, Randall was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

“I had to call [Aktiv] back and say that our connection had just deepened,” Randall said, “that I wasn’t sure now that I would get to run the marathon.”

As Randall underwent six rounds of chemotherapy in the summer and fall of 2018, she stayed physically active. She toyed with the idea of keeping her Nov. 8 marathon entry, in between her last round on Oct. 22 and November surgery.

“But as the chemo sessions went on, I started to realize that probably wasn’t the smartest idea,” she said. “The progressive rounds of chemo had been kind of breaking me down and compromising my immune system.”

Randall still traveled to New York last November for race weekend. She accepted the Aktiv inspiration award. Then she watched in Central Park as Olympic teammate Liz Stephen completed the five-borough race in 2 hours, 58 minutes, 40 seconds.

“I decided to come back next year,” Randall said. “It’s just been a great goal to have this year as I built my way back from finishing treatment.”

Surgery showed chemo had dissolved the tumors. Randall finished precautionary radiation in late January. “That still felt like the most intense part because I had to go in every single day,” she said.

She had infusions every three weeks through early July, but they were manageable with no side effects. She’s on hormone suppression medication for the next five years, also precautionary to prevent recurrence.

“Since November, pretty confident I’m cancer-free,” she said.

Unlike most first-time marathoners, Randall has actually competed in a longer distance. She skied her first 50km (31 miles) event in Wisconsin in February, taking 2 hours, 48 minutes.

Randall trained through public speaking engagements all summer, including a Sunday long run on a Princess Cruises deck track — 87 laps to reach 12 miles. She tuned up for New York City by winning the female division of a half marathon in Kelowna, B.C., two weeks ago in 1:23:43, an hour north of her home. Her plan was to run closer to 1:30.

“I’ve had a good amount of distance from finishing the hardest part of my treatments,” she said, “so I’ve been feeling pretty normal energy-wise.”

Randall’s goal on Sunday is to break three hours. She plans to start the race with Stephen and another Olympic cross-country skier, Ida Sargent. Her husband, Jeff Ellis, and father and brother will be there. Her son, 3-year-old Breck, will stay home with his grandparents.

Randall, long recognizable in skiing for her pink hair (not related to breast cancer), will wear her personal brand of bright-colored socks with the words “It’s going to be … OK!” The motto helped her get through cancer treatment. She has sold 5,000 pairs on Kikkan.com, with $2 for each sale going to Aktiv.

Her blond hair grew back long enough that she can color it again before Sunday. She may also throw on glitter in a nod to a U.S. cross-country skiing team tradition started by Diggins, who brought levity to competition.

“It’s my way to celebrate what I can do, being grateful that my treatment has gone so well,” Randall said of running, “and in tribute to those who fought hard and did everything they could but ultimately didn’t get the positive outcome like I’ve had.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Tiger Woods back in contention for Olympic golf qualification

Bryan brothers to retire at 2020 U.S. Open, don’t plan on Olympics

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Bob and Mike Bryan said they will retire after the 2020 U.S. Open, ending a tennis career that’s included a men’s record 16 Grand Slam doubles titles together.

They also don’t plan to play at the Tokyo Olympics, their manager later said in an email.

The twins are 41 years old, having spent more than half their lives as professionals.

“A part of us, feels like, is dying,” Bob Bryan said on Tennis Channel. “But we’re really clear about this decision. It’s going to be great to have a finish line.”

Mike said that in 2020 they will play all the events they “really love,” including all four Grand Slams and American tournaments. The Olympics weren’t mentioned.

Rather, they will see how they’re feeling midway through the year, they said on the Tennis.com podcast.

The Bryans earned doubles gold at the 2012 London Games but withdrew from the Rio Olympics six days before the Opening Ceremony. They cited making their family’s health a “top priority” and later said Zika virus concerns were “a very small part of” the decision.

The Bryans own 118 titles overall but nearly ended their partnership after Bob underwent hip surgery a year ago. He rejoined Mike this season, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and winning two ATP doubles titles.

MORE: Simona Halep, Nadia Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
Getty Images
Leave a comment

When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

MORE: Simona Halep, Nadia Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!