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

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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.”

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Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff set Australian Open duel

Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff
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Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff will meet in the third round of a second straight Grand Slam, this time at the Australian Open on Friday.

Osaka, the defending champion and world No. 4, and Gauff, the 15-year-old American phenom, each won second-round matches in Melbourne to reach the final 32.

Osaka swept Chinese Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-4 on a windy Wednesday afternoon. Later, Gauff followed her first-round win over Venus Williams by eliminating Romanian veteran Sorana Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5.

“I know what to expect,” Gauff said. “I’m excited.”

Osaka beat Gauff 6-3, 6-0 in the U.S. Open third round on Aug. 31. In the most memorable moment of that night, Osaka urged Gauff to share the on-court victor’s interview at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“It’s better than going into the showers and crying,” Osaka told Gauff in front of a packed crowd. “Let these people know how you feel.”

Gauff obliged after at first declining.

“I’m not the type of person who wants to cry in front of everyone,” she said later. “I didn’t want to take that moment away from [Osaka], as well.”

Gauff, ranked No. 684 at this time last year, is now No. 67. She broke through by beating Williams in the Wimbledon first round, then reaching the round of 16.

Gauff won a lower-level WTA Tour event in October and now ranks fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying. The top four after the French Open qualify for the Tokyo Games, though Gauff has fewer than half the points as No. 4 Alison Riske.

“It’s been really cool to watch her grow because it’s happened so fast,” Osaka said.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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John Isner leaning toward skipping Olympics again

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John Isner, the highest-ranked U.S. male singles tennis player, is considering skipping the Olympics for a second straight time.

“I haven’t put a ton of thought into it, but as of right now, I think I’m leaning towards not playing,” the 19th-ranked player said at the Australian Open on Tuesday. “It’s about scheduling. I know the Olympics, it’s a fantastic honor. There’s no doubt about that. … Right now, at this stage in my career, it’s not a huge priority for me. So that’s probably the main reason I won’t be going. I certainly love playing in the summer in America, and I’m going to focus on that.”

The Tokyo Games take place the same week as a lower-level ATP Tour event in Atlanta that Isner, a former University of Georgia star, has won five times.

Other notable male players already said they will pass on Tokyo, including Sam Querrey, the top American in Olympic qualifying standings.

Austrian Dominic Thiem, a two-time French Open finalist, is prioritizing an ATP event in Kitzbühel the week of the Olympics. The U.S. doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan are not planning to play the Olympics in their final season before retirement, their manager said in November.

“The Olympics is very tough on the schedule … especially with Davis Cup,” Isner said in 2016, according to USA Today. “I think the fact that they have no [ATP ranking] points [at the Olympics], to be honest, was a pretty big factor as well. Obviously the Olympics is not about the money, but no points I think hindered me a bit.”

Isner, who turns 35 on April 26, is likely giving up his last chance to play Olympic singles. In his only Olympic participation, he reached the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Games, plus lost an opening-round doubles match there with Andy Roddick.

The top four U.S. men qualify for Tokyo, assuming they are among the top 60 overall qualifiers (maximum four per country) after this spring’s French Open.

Taylor FritzReilly Opelka, Steve Johnson and Tommy Paul are the U.S. men currently in Olympic qualifying position if excluding Querrey and Isner.

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