If Kikkan Randall wins cross-country gold on February 11, as most pundits predict, it will be a first for the U.S. and the first Olympic medal won by an American in the sport since Bill Koch took home the silver in 1976. Her biggest accomplishment, though, might be convincing people that cross-country skiing is entertaining.
With streaks of pink in her blond hair and a penchant for feather boas, Randall, 31, brings snowboarder-punk flair to an otherwise staid sport. She also races the sprint, an event that wasn't part of elite competition until 2001. (It debuted at the Olympics in Salt Lake City.) Compared with the 30-kilometer grind that has always defined cross-country, the sprint is a kilometer and a half of fury, where six athletes go elbow-to-elbow on a hilly, twisting track. Think Roller Derby on snow.
"It's six skiers on a course that's sometimes no more than ten feet wide," says Randall. "You've got skis and poles going different directions, and you don't know the winner until they lunge for the finish."
Randall captured the overall World Cup sprint title in 2012, then repeated last year while also winning the gold in the sprint relay at the World Championships with teammate Jessie Diggins. Known for her aggressive approach to training—in high school, her cross-country-running teammates dubbed her the Kikkanimal—she credits her success to a distinctive fitness regimen, which mixes long hours of endurance work with Olympic weight lifting.
Twice a week, Randall, who's five feet five inches and 135 pounds, with Adonis abs and prize-fighter biceps, completes a series of power cleans and snatches. She also does pull-ups with a 60-pound weight dangling from her waist. "Going into the 2011 season, I began working with a strength coach, and that's when my results picked up," she says. "I've noticed a new level of power in my skiing."
To prepare for the Olympics, Randall, who finished eighth in the sprint at the 2010 Games, has been helicoptering from Anchorage, Alaska, out to the Eagle Glacier, where in July her coaches built a replica of the Sochi sprint course. "There will still be some wild cards when we get there," she says. "But I'll be ready."