Nina Kemppel

Kikkan Randall's conditioning thing

Every July 4th in Seward, Alaska, there's a race called Mount Marathon. It's not a marathon. It's a different kind of ordeal.

One of the oldest-known races in the United States, dating to 1915, it's a 3 1/2-mile torture that goes up and then back down a 3,022-foot mountain. You come down in about a third the time it takes to go up; in all, the winner -- at least on the women's side -- takes just over 50 minutes. Outside of the Iditarod, the sled race, it might be one of Alaska's premier sporting events. Big local bragging rights are involved -- for instance, Nina Kemppel, who raced in four Olympic Winter Games over her cross-country career with the U.S. Ski Team, is a nine-time winner.

In the Randall household, there was this: Mom Debbie won the race in 1975. Aunt Betsy, who competed as a cross-country skier in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Games, won it three times, from 1979 to 1981. Daughter Kikkan -- well, as a cross-country skier, Kikkan might well have won a world championship silver medal in 2009, might have recorded two World Cup wins, might last season have become the first American woman ever to make the podium (third) in the final World Cup sprint standings …

But she had yet to win Mount Marathon.

Four times she was a runner-up.

Until this past July 4.

When Kikkan, racing side by side with Alaska Pacific University club teammate Holly Brooks for most of the race, finally broke through -- winning in 52:03, Holly 19 seconds behind.

The U.S. Ski Team leaves for Europe in just a few days; the World Cup cross-country season starts in Norway on Nov. 19. Kikkan Randall just wrapped up a summer of training that makes you understand fully the dedication and drive of championship athletes.

They are indeed different from the rest of us.

Mind you -- this isn't even an Olympic year.

There are two long years to go, in fact, before we even get to the Olympic year. This is the kind of year where even the most seasoned pros can find it difficult to sustain their energy.

Not Kikkan.

Even on vacation -- in Maui, at the end of April, with her husband, Jeff Ellis -- a really, really fun day was not to idle on the beach with fruity drinks. Oh, no. A really, really fun day was to go for a three- or four-hour bike ride.

"Every once in a while he looks at me and rolls his eyes and tells me I'm crazy," she said, laughing.

Then again, she said, when training for the winter season began in earnest on May 1, those bike rides meant "my body wasn't starting from total standstill."

Look, let's face it, Kikkan said: "I definitely like to be doing stuff."


Training in the back-country in Alaska with her Alaska Pacific club team.

Doing a triathlon and setting a new PR in the running leg. In Alaska, when they hold a triathlon in May, they have to make allowances for the swim portion -- they do it in a pool.

Heading to Sweden for more than two weeks of training with the national team there. And here was a revelation. It used to be that the Europeans thought little, if at all, about the American cross-country performers. Now that Americans are winners in the sprints, though, the Europeans have noticed. "Two years ago, I was there to learn and watch. Now they are there to observe me," Kikkan said.

Back to Alaska for Mount Marathon and then several weeks of "pretty hard weeks of training."

Cut in with all of that were visits to schools for a program called "Healthy Futures" and work with another initiative that Kikkan supports called "Fast and Female."  She said, "I benefitted from having great opportunities to play sports and then be active. It empowered me. I want kids to have those same opportunities that I did. A little hard work pays off -- you can do anything if you have belief in yourself."

Which is where she finds herself this World Cup season. She has proven herself in the sprints. Now -- the distances.

She said, "Every year I am getting closer. It just takes time to develop fitness and the confidence to race with those girls. In a couple years, I can be challenging for the top in the distance races as well.

"Kris Freeman," one of the top American men, "has been so close several times, Kikkan said. "He has shown it is possible."

Kikkan is 28. In Sochi in 2014, she will be 31. If she were a gymnast, at 31 she would be an old lady. For a cross-country skier, it's entirely different. She said, "I feel like I am just now entering my stride. Most people would be winding down. Mine is just now speeding up."

Fun at the ol' USOC

The U.S. Olympic Committee's two-day board of directors meeting in Atlanta wrapped up Tuesday, and what was notable was not that it produced any big news -- none was expected -- but that it was, as new board member Dave Ogrean put it, well, "fun." "Fun" is not a word that has not often in recent years been associated with USOC precincts.

Then again, as has been observed repeatedly in this space over the past 15 months, since board chairman Larry Probst hired Scott Blackmun to be the chief executive officer, this is indeed a new USOC.

Ogrean, who has pretty much seen and done it all in an extensive career that has traversed the American Olympic stage and who is currently the executive director of USA Hockey, said in a conference call with reporters, referring to the USOC's management and, as well, its outlook, "I think things are in better shape today than they [have been] in a decade."

It is perhaps the nature of what's now to suffer some amnesia when recalling what has come before. So let us not so easily dismiss the domestic stability that Peter Ueberroth and Jim Scherr brought through the Athens and Beijing Olympics; that stability was much needed after the wholesale convulsions and governance reforms that immediately preceded their tenures.

Then, though, came Stephanie Streeter, who as USOC chief executive showed that she knew of the intricacies of the international Olympic movement about what you'd expect from someone who had run a printing company. Like -- what?

And then came the debacle of the aborted USOC television network.

And then, worse, Chicago's beat-down in the first round of the 2009 International Olympic Committee vote at which Rio de Janeiro won the 2016 Summer Games -- the president of the United States summoned to the scene in Copenhagen just before the vote, and for what? For Chicago, his hometown, to win just 18 votes?

None of that could in the least be described as "fun."

Of all the things they have done, Blackmun and Probst have spent considerable time and effort working at the one thing that counts more than anything else in the Olympic scene -- relationship-building.

Last September,  Dick Ebersol, his title now chairman of NBC Sports Group, appeared in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the annual USOC assembly, with words of praise for both Probst and Blackmun.

News item, Feb. 17: Online broker TD Ameritrade Holding Co. agrees to sponsor the U.S. Olympic team through the 2012 Games, the deal marking the first-ever USOC sponsorship in the online broker category as well as the first collaboration with NBC, which will receive a commitment for a certain level of media buys from TD Ameritrade, according to the USOC. Terms were not disclosed.

News item,  March 10: NBC and the USOC sign Citi as an official bank partner of the network and the 2012 U.S. team. The USOC had been without an "official bank" since Bank of America had bowed out in 2009. The USOC's chief marketing officer, Lisa Baird, tells the Sports Business Daily of the novel deal, "Partners are responding to the integrated marketing and media package. We're proud of both of these coming on and doing so in quick time is evidence this is working.”

Disclosure: I am a former NBC employee.

More: I had no idea any of these deals were coming and I have zero idea if any other USOC contracts are coming.

But I can put two and two together, and I know this: whether or not Ebersol was in the least bit involved in any of this deal-making or not, the fact is that the climate between NBC and the USOC is totally, totally different than it was not all that long ago.

Here, from October, 2009, was Ebersol, to the Washington Post: "IOC members 'don't hate America, they hate the USOC, and with good reason. Congress doesn't need to do any new reform. The USOC just needs new leadership.' "

And here, just a couple days ago, after the announcement that Probst and Blackmun had been appointed to IOC committees, was Ebersol, in the New York Times: "This is exciting news for all of us involved with the Olympic movement in the United States. It is clear evidence that the re-energized and clearly focused USOC under Larry and Scott is being recognized not only by the IOC but by the entire international Olympic community."

To be sure, the USOC in March 2011 still faces significant challenges.

It must yet strike a deal with the IOC to resolve a longstanding revenue dispute. Talks are ongoing, and Probst said Tuesday, without providing any details, that he and other senior USOC officials are "encouraged by the tone of the discussions."

A U.S. television rights deal for 2014 and 2016, and perhaps beyond, is now at issue. That deal is the key to the IOC's financial well-being. Meanwhile, how it plays out -- and for a variety of reasons it is almost sure to play out in the near term,before July -- is central to perceptions of the USOC in IOC circles, and certain to be a key factor in whether and when the USOC gets back into the bid game.

A whole host of other concerns are also up for discussion. Just to pick a couple:

For funding purposes, how best to determine which national governing bodies are more or less likely to reach or sustain "sustained competitive excellence," to use USOC lingo?

Are there security-related concerns beyond the usual at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico?

Such matters were on the table Tuesday in Atlanta for the board, which now totals 15, and the new members: Ogrean; former Visa executive Susanne Lyons; Nina Kemppel, a cross-country skier who raced in four Winter Games; former John Hancock chief executive James Benson; and former Microsoft executive Robbie Bach.

"These are talented people and they are not wallflowers," Blackmun said.

Probst echoed, "They were happy to speak up -- to share their opinions."

Ogrean said the dialogue was "always civil," a point that, again, could not always be said to be the case with the USOC. He said, "It was, quite frankly, fun."