Olympic champion Kikkan Randall on breast cancer, losing her pink hair, and gaining a pink wig

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At PyeongChang 2018, American cross-country skier Kikkan Randall stood with her team-mate Jessie Diggins at the top of the podium. Her trademark dyed pink hair beamed across the world’s screens.

The 35-year-old has now shaved that hair off.

“I definitely liked my hair. It’s definitely going to be different not having it,” she said to the Olympic Channel Podcast.

“But I know this is only temporary. And so far, in the less than 24 hours since I shaved it off, I am feeling ok about it.”

It was Mother’s Day in May 2018 when the Olympic gold medallist found the lump in her breast, before the dreaded ‘call’.

Doctors confirmed it was cancer.

“I went through a wave of emotions – almost like experiencing a loss.

“You experience disbelief. Like, ‘No. This can’t be right. Not me. I can’t have this.’

“You go through anger and frustration, like, ‘This isn’t fair. I have done everything right. This can’t be happening to me.’”

RANDALL: NUMBER ONE

Randall’s career is packed full of American firsts.

She was the first American woman to chalk up a victory at a cross-country skiing world cup event.

The first victory for a US woman at the World Championships was also secured by Randall.

Then, after missing out on the podium altogether at Sochi 2014 despite being a red-hot favourite, she and team-mate Jessie Diggins became the first American Olympic champions in the team sprint at PyeongChang 2018.

Less than three months later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“There’s nothing I can do about it. I have to just take it one step at a time. The prognosis is good. I just need to get through the treatment. I can get back to the things that I love to do.”

A post shared by Kikkan Randall (@kikkanimal) on

OLYMPIANS AND CANCER

It goes against everything you would hope to be true.

If you maintain a healthy body and mind, then surely you can expect to enjoy a long and happy life.

Randall smiles wryly.

“I have heard that people (with cancer) often feel guilty as if they, kind of, caused it.

“(I’m) like, ‘Hey – if an Olympic gold medallist can get this, then it’s nothing you did.’”

It should come as no surprise that the American is still working out – doing interval training and taking hikes up Alaskan mountains.

“Someone might say, ‘If an Olympic gold medallist gets cancer – why should I even try (to stay healthy)?’

“I’d say, ‘If this does happen to you, because cancer doesn’t appear to discriminate, that being healthy will help you get through it.”

Kikkan Randall with pink hair
Cross country skier Kikkan Randall with her trademark pink hair. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

PINK HAIR

Other than winning, there’s another thing associated with Randall: her pink hair.

It’s been part of her look long before the cancer.

“I’ve always seen pink as a representation of energy and female strength.

“It’s a way of saying I can be a girl. I can be strong. I can do all of these things.”

But pink hasn’t always been Randall’s favourite colour.

And even now, she admits, that if she was to paint a wall in her house – it would still probably be blue rather than pink.

“You can have such a thing as too much pink. But I do love it.” – Kikkan Randall to Olympic Channel podcast

Over the past few years, the colour has been used much more to promote breast cancer awareness around the globe.

“It’s found its way into all parts of my life. And, now, it’s ironically taken on a totally new meaning.”

A post shared by Kikkan Randall (@kikkanimal) on

THE TRIP TO THE HAIRDRESSER

Imagine tugging at a chunk of your hair and then, piece-by-piece, it falls out.

The reality didn’t really live up to the nightmare for Randall.

“(The) anxiousness and waiting to lose your hair was actually harder than when it actually happens.

“So many people had either said they wished they had… shaved their head before it really started to come out.

“It makes it (look) less messy – it makes it (feel) a little less traumatic… So that was kind of my plan.

“I had a speaking engagement… and my hair looked great.

“I did my speech and literally right afterwards I went over to the hairdresser who has been putting pink in my hair for ten years.

“She said, ‘You still look great.’ And I said, ‘Yes? Watch this.’

“And I pulled out a big chunk of hair which is just, kind of, wild…

“So, I sat in the chair… and, in a matter of about four minutes, it was all gone.”

It might be surprising that someone who has their identity so wrapped up with their hair wasn’t that upset when it was all cut off – but Randall says she wasn’t.

“Looking in the mirror straight away, I was like, ‘Oh that actually looks better than I thought it would.’

“I had brought a wig with me, so we put the wig on, and we kind of like trimmed it up. It looks surprisingly real.”

Kikkan Randall wears pink wig during video call
Olympic champion Kikkan Randall speaks to Olympic Channel via video call wearing a pink wig after shaving her head during breast cancer treatment.

PINK HAIR FOREVER

After PyeongChang 2018, Randall decided to retire from competitive cross-country skiing.

She has a husband and a young son.

“When I retired – a lot of people said – hey, are you going to keep pink in your hair?

“I was like, ‘I really like having pink in my hair but what’s the reason why I should keep it?’

Now, Randall has a pink wig, as well as a more natural looking one, which she plans to wear when she feels like it.

“I’ve got a reason for life – I can keep putting pink in my hair because of what it represents.”

CHANNELLING THE OLYMPIC SPIRIT

It was all the way back in her home city of Salt Lake City when Randall first made it on the USA Olympic team in 2002.

Since then, she’s not missed a Winter Games.

It’s this tenacity and longevity from the sporting world that she’s already channelling into her treatment.

“I think this is going to be more challenging in that I don’t have control over the days that I feel bad.

“I don’t know when it’s going to end. In a workout or in a hard race – I can always choose to stop…

“And (now) I don’t have a choice to stop.”

Kikkan Randall celebrates with team mate Jessie Diggins
Jessica Diggins of the United States (L) and Kikkan Randall of the United States celebrate as they win gold during the Cross-Country Team Sprint (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

AN INSPIRATIONAL MESSAGE

It’s also given her a new appreciation for life.

“This just kind of makes you confront your mortality a bit more and go, ‘Well the prognosis is good and I am most likely going to get through this and live a long healthy life.’

“But once you have cancer – things are always going to be a little more uncertain.”

“I am going to come back stronger from this. We are going to celebrate every day we have and make the most out of it.”

For Randall, that means passing on a message to everyone.

“Enjoy what your body can do because you never know when something like this can crop up and it might be taken away.

“Celebrate your speed, strength, and power.

“And live each day to the fullest.”

 

Kikkan Randall was this week’s big interview on the Olympic Channel Podcast. Each Wednesday we reach into the mind of someone Olympic. We want you to think like an Olympian.

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Author: Ed Knowles
Olympic Channel podcast host. PyeongChang 2018 survivor.