Inside the living room of her new home, Kikkan Randall held a wig in her hands.
Her own hair is growing back, but it is still a long way from matching the shoulder-length coiffure with the pink streaks that she sported for much of her career to remind her audience that cross-country skiers were “NOT boring.”
The blond wig with a pink streak — purchased last year in Anchorage, Alaska, her home city — was meant to provide a sense of normalcy amid upheaval.
“It’s funny,” she said last week as she placed it on her no-longer bald head. “Where we’re at now, I feel like I’m playing dress-up when I wear this.”
A year ago, when Randall and Jessie Diggins won the United States’ first Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing and its first medal of any kind in the sport in 42 years, Randall already had breast cancer.
She just did not know it yet.
After all the wide-eyed jubilation in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on the night of Feb. 21, 2018, Randall’s realization that something might be wrong came on a much quieter evening — and served as a stark reminder that cancer doesn’t really care if you are an Olympic medalist, an icon in your sport, have no family history of the disease and are more fit than 99.99 per cent of the population.
It was May 13, Mother’s Day, less than three months after her crowning achievement. The newly retired Randall; her husband, Jeff Ellis; and their two-year-old son, Breck, had just spent a day in the outdoors near their new home in Penticton, a small Canadian city that sits between two lakes in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.
They had hiked in the nearby mountains in the sunshine, bought a grill for their yard and shared the feeling that they were finally settling into a rhythm after months of transition and a post-Olympic move from Anchorage.
“We’d had the best day,” Randall, 36, said. “I was so psyched on life, psyched to be a mom, psyched to be here starting our life here together. And then I was getting ready for bed and just happened to notice it.”
Her fingers brushed across something hard in her right breast.
“I thought it was my rib bone at first, but then it was, ‘Hmm, it feels like it’s kind of moving around in there,’” she said.
The diagnosis, delivered on May 31 by telephone as she was travelling to a wedding in Sweden, was Stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma.
“Early on, there was definitely a heavy, why-me phase,” Ellis said of Randall’s reaction. “’How is this possible? After all these years I finally got my medal and now I can’t enjoy it?’ So many years of delayed gratification. But Kikkan is pretty indomitable, which means that you are not always up, but that’s the predominant spirit.”
Randall and Ellis have been uncommonly open throughout her treatment, particularly on social media — an attempt to connect with Randall’s fan base and to provide others in similar situations with information and inspiration. She has posted from the wig shop, the hospital recovery room, the bathroom mirror and her Penticton couch after chemotherapy and a cold caught from Breck left her drained and miserable for a stretch last year.
Randall found the two pea-size tumours in her breast relatively early and received an upbeat prognosis for a common type of cancer.
But as a new arrival in Canada, she did not yet have health insurance. The U.S. Olympic Committee agreed to continue providing coverage throughout her extensive and expensive treatment, but she was required to receive her primary cancer care in the United States.
She chose Anchorage, where her parents and many of her closest friends live and where she remains a local icon after competing in five Olympics. But that meant weeks apart from Jeff and Breck as she shuttled between Canada and Alaska going through six rounds of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, follow-up surgery and 33 sessions of radiation.
Shortly before she finished her final radiation session, on Jan. 25, her mother, Deborah, opened a bottle of Champagne to mark the occasion. The bottle had originally been purchased to celebrate Randall’s long-awaited gold medal.
“When cancer happened, my mom decided that bottle had a new meaning,” Randall said.
There are, of course, private burdens, none heavier than the reality that Randall’s treatment means she and Ellis must postpone plans to have more children. That made her Mother’s Day discovery all the more poignant.
“When I found out I had cancer, it was almost disbelief,” Randall said. “It was like, ‘I did everything right, and I’ve taken really good care of myself.’ I had put all this work in my career and was looking forward to a point where I would get the kind of time to not have to be so disciplined and enjoy the reward of all that effort. But what really has been the most upsetting is the fact we couldn’t try and have another kid right away.”
In her mid-30s, with a tight window before she needed to start chemotherapy in July, Randall said she had enough time for one cycle of fertility drugs so the couple could try to have another child later. She and Ellis worked with a clinic in Seattle, which was unable to ship her some of the necessary medication because of import regulations. So Randall drove about 50 miles to the border, picked up the medicine and brought it back to Penticton.
She said she produced nine eggs, six of which were viable. Five embryos were then created, but only three made it through the first week. Of those three, Randall said, only one did not have a high risk of leading to a miscarriage.
“We would have loved to have three, but we got one, and you have about a 60-per-cent chance of that becoming a viable pregnancy,” she said.
Randall and Ellis have nicknamed the surviving embryo Little Frosty.
“He’s hanging out in Seattle in storage, and they can keep embryos up to 10 years,” she said.
Randall said she expected to be on anti-hormone medication for at least five years, possibly as long as 10. Pregnancy is not advisable during such treatment, although Randall said she might be able to take a break from the medication to pursue having a child.
“If we only ever end up with Breck, he’s amazing,” Randall said.
The family moved to Penticton for a job opportunity for Ellis, a former 400-metre hurdler for Canada, who was later an elite cross-country skier. But he said he left his new job in July to play a bigger role with Breck and to have more flexibility to help Randall.
After they moved to Canada for Ellis’s career, Randall’s pursuits are again taking precedence. The couple now work together out of the house, focusing on Randall’s business and charitable opportunities.
Her regimen includes training in the small workout room on the ground floor. Last Friday morning, she put herself through a brisk circuit of weightlifting, dips, resistance-band work and other exercises that she has tried to maintain since entering what she calls her GI Jane phase. She shaved her head after her hair began to fall out in clumps early in chemotherapy.
Randall likes to do laundry between sets, and her deep breathing is often drowned out by the sound of a washing machine shifting through its cycles. Bottles of detergent share space on shelves with mementos from her and Ellis’s athletic careers.
A photo of the gold medal finish from Pyeongchang, with Diggins’s arms thrust triumphantly skyward, sits atop a baseboard heater where Randall can see it as she sweats. Though there are signs of the strain, such as dark half-circles under her eyes, she looks lean and fit.
“Thankfully all the muscles didn’t go away,” she said.
She has put them to use: biking to and from her cancer treatments in Anchorage and hopping on skis very soon after her lumpectomy, using only one pole for a time to avoid overworking her right side.
In September, she won a 10-kilometre run in Penticton, and last month, while still finishing radiation treatment, she won the women’s event at a duathlon ski race in Anchorage.
“I don’t think cancer patients are told enough what they can do,” she said.
Randall, who has a port implanted in her chest to continue receiving injections of the drug Herceptin, wants to promote physical activity during treatment. She has taken inspiration from and spoken with Gabriele Grunewald, a 32-year-old American middle-distance runner, who has continued to compete despite dealing with more virulent forms of cancer.
Randall has no plans to return to top-level competition and has not skied more than 30 km since her cancer diagnosis, but she will take part in the American Birkebeiner, a 50-km ski marathon in Hayward, Wis., on Saturday. She then heads to China to take part in sprint ski races in the Bird’s Nest stadium as part of the buildup to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. In November, she intends to run the New York City Marathon.
She also has regular meetings as a member of the International Olympic Committee and the board of the USOC. Those positions do not come with a salary, so she needs to generate regular income through speaking engagements and sponsorships.
The whirlwind, if she stays healthy, will resume soon enough. But last Saturday, with the weather and the agenda clear, she and Ellis packed their minivan with gear and drove about 45 minutes west to the groomed cross-country trails of Nickel Plate Nordic Centre.
Ellis clicked into his bindings and towed Breck in a carrier with Randall whooping alongside them as they headed down a gentle slope. Later, as she sprinted across the snow on her own, the rest of her family took a break.
“After everything, it’s great to see her out there on skis,” Ellis said. “It’s her happy place.”