LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The United States always has had a strong showing in the Winter Olympics, but not in cross-country skiing. The U.S. women's team has never won a medal in the grueling competition which can last up to two hours with skiers climbing steep hills and tucking around tight turns. The Americans came close in Sochi four years ago. And since then, U.S. women have been racking up big wins at international races. Alaska Public Media's Emily Russell reports the team hopes to make history in 2018.
EMILY RUSSELL: It's a bright and cold training day before heading to South Korea. And a handful of Olympic athletes are here in the snowy mountains near Anchorage, Alaska. Kikkan Randall pushes one ski and glides on the other like she's skating on ice. Randall is 5-foot-5 and all muscle, but this five-time Olympian doesn't take herself too seriously.
What's up with the pink hair?
KIKKAN RANDALL: (Laughter) You know, the pink hair is going on about 12 years now.
RUSSELL: For decades, she says, it was downhill skiers like Picabo Street and Lindsey Vonn claiming the skiing spotlight.
RANDALL: And I was kind of frustrated at the time because cross-country skiing was kind of pushed off as this, oh, you guys just wear spandex, and you disappear off in the woods, and it's kind of a lame sport. And I was, like, no. Like, spring racing is coming up. We're, like, really fast and dynamic. And so I thought, I want to show the fun side. So I put some pink tips in my hair.
RUSSELL: With pink tips in her hair and multiple podiums in international races under her belt, Randall's time came to shine four years ago at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
PEGGY SHINN: I was sitting in the stands right next to the finish line.
RUSSELL: Peggy Shin is a sports journalist and author of a book about the women's cross-country ski team.
SHINN: And I was all excited because this was going to be the race where the U.S. was going to win a medal.
RUSSELL: Women's cross-country skiing made its Olympic debut in 1952. But the American women didn't even field a team until 1972. Since many of these races take place in their backyard, the Scandinavians have dominated the sport. In 2014, though, the American women were set to earn their first Olympic medal. In the quarter finals of a sprint race, Kikkan Randall lunged across the line.
SHINN: And it was this amazing hush that went over the crowd. And nobody - it was like nobody breathed for a few seconds when they realized what had happened. Like, Kikkan Randall was not advancing to the semifinals.
RANDALL: That's the beauty of the Olympics and also the agony - it's one day. And if it doesn't quite go right, that's your chance.
RUSSELL: Randall still chokes up when she talks about Sochi. But another beauty of the Olympics - they come around every four years. And the American team is deeper now. Spending month's together racing in Europe every year means they're closer than most teams. And they're more confident than ever.
JESSIE DIGGINS: We definitely have a chance at a medal.
RUSSELL: Jessie Diggins has been racking up her own set of medals at international races like this one in Finland last year.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: To the line they come. Jessie Diggins of the United States gets the bronze for the U.S.
RUSSELL: Once across the line, Diggins collapses, sprawling out on the snow, skis still attached.
DIGGINS: That's probably the best feeling there is.
RUSSELL: A feeling the American women could replicate for the first time ever on the Olympic stage.
DIGGINS: And that just gives me goosebumps because I know that we are coming into this with a serious fighting chance. And we're going to be swinging hard.
RUSSELL: The American women will come out swinging at the first of six cross-country ski races on Saturday. For NPR News, I'm Emily Russell in Anchorage.
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