The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, are officially underway. This year, 244 athletes will compete for Team USA.
Among them are 21 parents ― 20 fathers and just one mother, cross-country skier Kikkan Randall.
Randall has been skiing since she was a year old. She made her Olympic debut at 19 at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, and later competed at the games in Turin, Vancouver and Sochi. In 2007, she became the first American woman to win a World Cup title in cross-country skiing.
In April 2016, Randall and her husband, Jeff Ellis, welcomed their first child, a baby boy named Breck. And this month she’ll compete in her fifth Winter Olympics.
HuffPost spoke to Randall shortly after she arrived in South Korea this week to learn more about her experience returning to skiing after pregnancy, balancing parenthood with training, and embarking on her fifth Olympic Games.
First Olympics As A Mom
The Pyeongchang Games are her first Olympics since becoming a parent, and already the experience feels quite different, Randall said.
While she and her husband were hoping to bring Breck to South Korea and have her parents watch him, the plan ended up being too expensive, so he’s staying with his grandparents in Canada.
“I won’t get to see him for a full month, which is going to be really hard because I’ve just gotten so adapted to life chasing around a toddler,” Randall said. “But he is doing great with his grandparents. I FaceTimed with him tonight, and he’s having a great time. I know he’s in a good place, so now I can focus on what I need to do.”
After taking her son with her to competitions around the world, the skier is “back to life as just an athlete” for a while.
“Having my family on the road, I haven’t gotten to be as much a part of the team as I used to, so it’s kind of fun to be able to take advantage of hanging out with my teammates a bit more again and being able to really focus on my recovery,” Randall explained.
Not that her son is really far from her mind. “Now I’m just striking up conversations everywhere I go about parenthood!” she said.
In fact, being a parent has helped her relate to a bigger audience as an athlete, she added.
“While I was pregnant and while I was returning to competition, I was curious to see the effect it would have on my body and how I was going to be able to manage it, so I really enjoyed sharing my journey and getting a lot of good feedback from people that raced, learning what works and doesn’t work,” she said.
It’s not all perfect. The team “like to crack mom jokes every now and again,” Randall said. “And I’m like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa!’ and they’re like, ‘Well, that doesn’t apply to you, Kikkan!’”
Back To Skiing After Giving Birth
It’s not surprising there are more fathers than mothers on Team USA. Having a baby can take a serious toll on a woman’s body. Randall missed a season of racing during her pregnancy.
“Thankfully during that time, I was able to keep training at a fairly decent level,” she said. She continued to work out twice a day, although she shifted her focus from getting into top racing form to maintaining a healthy, fit body.
After Breck was born, Randall gave herself about two or three weeks to “just really take a chill.”
“I mean you’re so consumed with the new feeding schedule and sleeping schedule and everything anyway. But already within a few days, it was great to be able to start getting out for walks with him and meeting up with some other fellow moms,” she recalled.
Within a month of Breck’s birth, Randall was hiking and biking again. “I was actually pleasantly surprised how good it felt to jump back into things,” she said.
The process of returning to competition fitness after pregnancy wasn’t without its challenges. Randall realized she had a lot of work to do when she tweaked some muscles in her back getting out of a chair.
“I realized that while my aerobic capacity and muscle structure felt good in general, I was lacking the coordination of inner core muscles, which I had never had to think about before,” she recalled. With help from a physical therapist specializing in postpartum-related work, she sought to regain that stability and added a third workout ― pilates ― three days a week.
Recovery took a lot of effort, but about every three months, Randall noticed big improvements on the journey back to racing form. At 10 months postpartum, she felt almost ready to compete at her full potential again, and at a year, she felt even stronger.
“In some ways, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I could do, but in other ways, it did take a bigger toll on my body than I would’ve guessed,” she said. “It did take some patience and diligence to work back.”
Balancing Motherhood With Racing
Support has been key to her progress. Randall credits her husband and both sets of grandparents with helping her balance parenthood and training for the Olympics.
Six years ago, her husband took a job with the International Ski Federation, which allows him to work in Europe during the winter while she’s there racing full-time. “It was great because we could actually see each other, and now it allows him to be available in the summer to take care of our son while I’m out training twice a day,” Randall said.
Now that they have Breck, both sets of grandparents come help care for him during the winter in Europe while his parents are working.
“Without that support, there’s no way I’d be able to do it,” said Randall. She’s particularly grateful they haven’t had to put him in daycare because she needs to keep that toddlers’ stew of germs out of the house to stay healthy.
“I’ve been able to come home from training, and he’s there. We get to spend so much time together, which is wonderful,” Randall said.
Of course, Breck doesn’t always respect mom’s schedule.
“Occasionally the recovery piece has been challenging because I come home, and after I’ve had a big workout, I would normally take a nap. But my son’s ecstatic and wants to play, so I end up playing through the afternoon and having to go out for the second workout,” she added. “But overall thanks to the great support, I’ve been able to manage.”
Bonding With Fellow Mom Skiers
Parenthood has brought Randall closer to some of her fellow moms on the slopes. “On the cross-country circuit, there were four of us that had babies within a few months of each other two seasons ago and then all came back to racing last year,” she said.
“I was already really good friends with one of the girls from Finland, so we did the family training camp together last season and have kept in touch,” Randall said. “I’ve always been friendly with the other two, but now they make a point to come over and talk, and a couple of times, we’ve had our kids together. So it’s definitely enhanced the camaraderie.”
Her fellow athlete moms have also been helpful sources of advice. Although Breck has always been a fairly good sleeper, he had some trouble after they went to Europe for the winter of 2016-2017.
“He really struggled with the time change and he was up six or seven times a night,” Randall recalled. “I was starting to race, and it just wasn’t working.”
Her Finnish friend suggested sleep training, and they found it helped a lot. Breck mostly sleeps through the night now and is a good napper.
“Overall he’s been a very adaptable kid because we travel all over ― we’re in different time zones and hotels all the time. And he just kind of rolls with it,” said Randall. “He’s been a very solvable kid. When he’s upset, you can usually figure out what he needs. So that’s made it good because I think if he were more temperamental or difficult, then that would definitely wear on the sleep and recovery piece.”
Breck’s Ski Career
Breck is just 21 months old, but he’s already been on skis.
“We got a pair of skis that you strap on your snow boots this fall because I was traveling up in the mountains every day to ski, so my husband would bring him up and just put them on,” Randall said. “He lasts a couple of minutes before he gets bored. But he loves to watch the skiers go by, so we’ve been doing that.”
While they were in Switzerland over Christmas, her in-laws gave Breck a small set of alpine skis and boots.
“We started putting him on the bunny slope there. Then my dad, who’s a big alpine skier, has been taking him out every day and just doing a few runs on the alpine skis. So he’s one of those kids who’s gonna be able to say he was on skis as soon as he could walk.”
The Pyeongchang Games
Randall told HuffPost she’s feeling confident as she heads into the Winter Games.
“I don’t think I’ve quite gotten back to the level I was at four years ago when I came into the Olympics as a gold medal favorite. But I feel darn close,” she said.
Although she struggled with a foot injury in December, which took her out of competition for about a month, Randall has been back racing the last few weekends and feeling strong.
“I feel like the ship is coming around right as it needs to. Knowing this is my last Olympics, I really want to leave everything out on the trail and leave with no regrets.”
She has one other priority as well: to take it all in.
“I want to remember to enjoy this whole experience because it’s pretty special, even coming to number five. It still takes your breath away when you walk into the Olympic village and you get your Team USA uniform,” Randall said. “It’s just such a privilege to represent Team USA. So yeah, I’m looking forward to having a lot of fun over the next couple of weeks.”