How the U.S. team completely rebuilt the culture of women's cross-country skiing -- then won the first Olympic gold ever

    March 22, 2018

    In 2006, Kikkan Randall was the only woman on the U.S. Ski A-team. She would travel to Europe alone, sit out team relays -- and spend a great deal of time watching "Grey's Anatomy" by herself in her hotel room. "Not only was I the only woman, but I had no one ahead of me to follow," says Randall. "I was constantly wondering if I was ever going to be successful."

    Fast-forward 12 years and Randall is far from alone. Just weeks ago, she stood atop the Olympic team sprint podium with teammate Jessie Diggins to claim the first Olympic medal for the U.S. in women's cross-country skiing -- and the first for any American in 42 years. Diggins wasn't the only person beside her, though. Along the race course screamed her five other teammates -- Ida Sargent, Liz Stephen, Sadie Bjornsen, Rosie Brennan and Sophie Caldwell -- as well as a crop of up-and-comers, wax techs and longtime coaches who created the momentum that transferred into gold.

    It started back then in 2006, when then-U.S. head coach Pete Vordenberg hammered down the mission to win a medal in cross-country skiing. On the women's side, though, there was a lack of both depth and precedent.

    Today, the squad has become known on the circuit for its insatiable love for the sport, support of each other, and flair for fun -- but that success wasn't a given. Rather, it came from an intentional change to the team culture and training within the U.S. program. Here's how they did it.

    Building a team mindset

    Creating "teamness" in an individual sport comes with many challenges. First, the U.S. coaches focused on recruiting, creating a development pipeline that included talent camps and other tools to help local coaches advance their athletes to the national level. Community funding also was established to help athletes attend camps and international races, bringing a new level of accessibility to the sport.

    Once the U.S. ski team began to assemble talented athletes, it then needed to manage what it meant to have a group of individuals working together. Because most of the World Cup events take place on European soil, the athletes train, compete, travel and spend nearly all of their time together.

    "We realized that it's totally unrealistic to be best friends with everyone on the team. Take seven strangers and group them together and some will fit naturally, but statistically, not everyone will be best friends," says Diggins. "But we can always be best teammates to one another."

    Sometimes, they had to force the fun. "On the road, you room with everybody, talk with everybody, and reach out every day to make sure that everyone gets to know each other," says Randall, listing the rules they'd informally followed as a team. She admits that sometimes the athletes had to fake it until they made it. They initiated a "Team Tuesday" with outings that involved bowling and weekly walks. They chose to wear the same outfits, don glitter in races, and make up wild cheers that earned sideways glances on the tour. "It's hard not to have a little fun when you're doing all that," she says.

    Wax techs and coaches got involved, too. Seemingly silly ideas like skit nights at remote training camps and choreographed hip-hop dances paid off -- and allowed the athletes time together and ways to get a little uncomfortable.

    "To say that it's all rainbows and butterflies would be a lie," says Caldwell, a sprinter who joined the team in 2013. "It still takes a lot of work. You get to choose your friends and not your teammates. Does it mean that we're having pillow fights before bed, sharing our deepest secrets, and getting each other's names tattooed on our bodies? No. But it does mean that we had the choice to be good teammates, and we made it."

    Making healthy eating habits a top priority


    Individual endurance sports are notorious for disordered eating, and cross-country skiing is no different. In 2016, a British Medical Journal study found that one in five adolescent skiers in Norway exhibited signs of disordered eating. That problem is certainly not limited to Norway.

    That same year, though, U.S. development team member Hannah Halvorsen broke the silence within the U.S. program. By putting together a video with testimonial from skiers across the country, she created solidarity and helped to encourage supportive and open discussion on the subject.

    And the conversation did change. Programming appeared at events for coaches, parents and athletes to address and speak about eating, and athletes on the U.S. team were equipped with new nutritional and psychological resources and experts. Regular physiological testing to ensure that an athlete's body mass and index are in a safe place to compete was enacted.

    "Meal time can either be an incredible stress for an athlete, or it can be a safe place where nobody is casting judgment," says U.S. women's head coach Matt Whitcomb. "I don't pretend to know what it might be like to be a female athlete, and I never will. What they eat and how they look is between the athlete and their dietitian, or perhaps with their psychologist. If they want to share any of that with me, I'm there to listen, but I don't pretend to be an authority on these topics."

    Though the current members of the U.S. team, who are still on the road competing in their World Cup season, preferred not to speak publicly about eating disorders within the team, several acknowledged that it had been a prevalent issue in the past. They also reiterated that this current openness and education have changed the mindset -- and improved the physical and emotional health of the team as a whole.

    Taking a customized approach to training

    Perspectives on healthy training and recovery have changed in the past decade as well. The team emphasized that competitiveness on training day had its time and place, but also that each individual needed to feel confident enough to build a program that would suit her.

    "The needs of the team change every day," says Whitcomb. "It's about drawing from the different ways that not just two different genders operate but how each individual operates. When we draw up our camp plan, the athletes are involved."

    Diggins elaborates that in order to be able to support her teammates, every athlete needs to know that she's doing what's right for her. Leading up to the Games, Diggins concentrated on the small parts of her process.

    "Every day I focused on just what training and recovery I had to do in that day, in that moment. Those days stacked up and built this wall of confidence that I could look back on when we finally got to the Games, and I knew I had done absolutely everything I could to be ready for those races," she says.

    The U.S. ski team's mantra remained throughout the training season: "Do what's right for me in a way that's right for we."

    "As a team, we focus on the process of building each other up and supporting each other through individual training sessions," Diggins says.

    Celebrating the entire team for every achievement

    The U.S. women have worked hard to view the success of any one of them as a success for the team. But it hasn't always been easy. As Bjornsen recently described on her blog, watching Diggins and Randall take home the United States' first gold medal was bittersweet because she knew that she had the ability to be in one of those spots. "I was overcome with excitement, love and respect and couldn't be more proud of them. A small piece deep inside my heart crumbled at the same time, knowing that I missed such an amazing opportunity," she wrote.

    In this moment, Bjornsen represented everything the U.S. team has come to be: supportive, ambitious, excited and, most of all, honest. She went to join her teammates, and the entirety of the American ski community, to celebrate the historic event because she was an important part of it.

    "Every single member of the team is a part of success, individual or otherwise," says Randall. "Unfortunately we don't get to put medals on everybody's neck, but they deserve it." The expanse of that celebration rippling through the U.S. ski community shows how the influence of this team has created a sense of trickle-down-teamwork that will carry well beyond their years on the World Cup.

    For many, it felt like the beginning. "This team is the greatest accomplishment and best part of my 20 years on the ski team," says Randall. "I love the belief and confidence we've created that has more kids dreaming of being Olympic champions and getting together and working hard. With that, they can do more than we ever did."