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Randall blazing her own trail

Kikkan Randall of Anchorage, Alaska, retired on top of the world last February, with her and Minnesota native Jessie Diggins becoming the first Americans to win a cross-country skiing gold medal, claiming the women's team sprint at the 2018 Winte...

Minneapolis Star Tribune file photoTeam USA's Kikkan Randall races during her leg in the women's 4x5-kilometer relay at Alpensia Cross-Country Centre during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeonhchang, South Korea.
Minneapolis Star Tribune file photo Team USA's Kikkan Randall races during her leg in the women's 4x5-kilometer relay at Alpensia Cross-Country Centre during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeonhchang, South Korea.

Kikkan Randall of Anchorage, Alaska, retired on top of the world last February, with her and Minnesota native Jessie Diggins becoming the first Americans to win a cross-country skiing gold medal, claiming the women's team sprint at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

"I almost had a feeling of invincibility," Randall recalled.

Just two months later, Randall was diagnosed with breast cancer. She returned to her hometown of Anchorage to undergo chemotherapy, her blonde locks giving way to a bald look.

Randall, of course, is a fighter, and this week she is in northwestern Wisconsin, where she will not only be the honorary starter for today's 45th American Birkebeiner from Cable to Hayward, she is also racing it for the first time.

Reflecting on this past year, with its peaks and valleys, Randall admitted it has been at times overwhelming, with Thursday being the one-year anniversary of her and Diggins' historic win.

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"It was quite the emotional day, just reflecting on where we were at one year ago and everything that has transpired since," Randall said.

Randall was at the Birkie Bash on Thursday night, where they did a fundraiser for a charity Randall is involved with AKTIV Against Cancer.

"They raised a bunch of money for that, and I had to do a speech," she said. "It was kind of tough to get the words out at first because I had a hard time finding the words to express what everyone's support means to me. It was great throughout my athletic career, but it's been a whole other level supporting me through my breast cancer treatment."

This will be Randall's first 50K, but as the most decorated Nordic skier in U.S. history, don't count her out.

The Birkie is not a World Cup race this year, so you won't see as strong a contingent of foreign skiers, so the team from Alaska Pacific could be strong contenders.

"We've been friends for quite some time, and now that she's not racing anymore, we knew it'd be fun to have her here," Birkie executive director Ben Popp said. "This is the largest gathering of the ski community in the U.S., and she was looking forward to coming, and we're certainly excited to have her and support her during her battle with cancer. It's been great all-around."

Among those old friends Randall has been able to catch up with this week at the Birkie is local ski guru Chad Salmela.

Salmela's epic call of Diggins' gut-wrenching charge down the homestretch cemented the event's place in Winter Olympic lore, elevating the sport in the American consciousness.

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"It's been fun to think back to that day last year, and think about all the great things that have come with the gold medal since," Randall said. "It was a very special day."

Randall said she still follows Diggins and Co. closely as Team USA is competing at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Seefeld, Austria.

"Jessie and all those girls are like sisters to me, but I knew the ski career had to come to a close at some point," Randall said.

Randall, 36, was at the Birkie three years ago as a skiing ambassador as she was pregnant with her son.

"When I was here three years ago, I said, 'You know what? I know I'm going to retire after 2018, so I'll definitely be at the Birkie in 2019,' " Randall recalled. "I'm excited for my first-ever 50K, and my first-ever Birkie, and hopefully it's one of many to come."

Randall is attacking her cancer diagnosis with the same zest she showed as a racer. Her attitude is upbeat and positive.

"Even with having gone through cancer over the last seven months, it was a great goal of being here and seeing everyone in the skiing community," Randall said. "I think it'll be fun. A lot has happened in the last year, and I'm excited to see what the next year holds."

45TH AMERICAN BIRKEBEINER

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What: North America's largest cross-country ski race

When: 8:15 a.m. today

Where: 50 kilometers from Cable to Main Street in Hayward (55K for classic skiers)

Who: A field of about 11,500 for the Birkie and its support races, the Kortelopet 29K and the Prince Haakon 15K

Live race tracking/webcast: birkie.com

Today's forecast: High of 34 with snow expected in Hayward

Tribune News Service file photoKikkan Randall (right) and Jessica Diggins from the U.S. celebrate after winning gold medals during the women's team sprint at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Tribune News Service file photo Kikkan Randall (right) and Jessica Diggins from the U.S. celebrate after winning gold medals during the women's team sprint at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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