Toronto, Canada – By Frank Pingue
TORONTO (Reuters) - American cross-country skier Kikkan Randall bounced back from a potentially fatal blood clot in her lower leg and is now closing in on a chance to end her nation's decades-long drought in the sport at the Olympics.
Randall, 27, was sent to hospital twice in April 2008 with a big blood clot in her lower leg and doctors said it could prove fatal if it worked its way into her lungs.
For Randall, who started out on skis the day after her first birthday, going down a hill her father made in their front garden, the news was a blow following a season where she became the first United States woman to win a World Cup event in cross-country.
"I had never been inactive and forced on my back for so long," Randall told Reuters in a telephone interview. "All I could do was stay positive, but I was certainly concerned about what it was going to mean for my career."
Despite the good build-up to next month's Winter Olympics, Randall is quick to point out that her preferred technique will not be used in Vancouver, hurting her chances of a medal.
The Olympics alternates between classic and freestyle cross-country skiing styles at each Games.
Randall, whose training includes half-squats using weights of about 315 pounds (142 kg), has had most of her success in freestyle, where skiers can power themselves in a style similar to speed skaters. In classic, skis must move parallel to each other in machine-groomed tracks.
"Realistically, while I would like to go in gunning for a medal, I know that it's going to be a little bit more of a challenge with the classic technique," said Randall.
"But I know that if it doesn't happen this time around I've got another great opportunity four years from now because I plan on being in this sport for a while."
Randall is not ruling out a shot at a medal next month, though she admits a top-12 finish would be quite an achievement for her in the classic technique.
Whatever happens, Randall will stand out at the Olympics as she often dyes her hair for races in a bid to shake of the image of her sport as boring.
Previous choices have included pink and the colors of the American flag. She has not decided what color to sport next month, but her hair was pink when she won her World Cup race in Russia.
Cross-country skiing is in Randall's blood. She is the niece of two former Olympians: Chris Haines, who was on the U.S. team in 1976 in Innsbruck, and Betsy Haines, who raced at the Lake Placid Games four years later.
Her given name of Kikkan is inspired by Christina "Kiki" Cutter, the first American to win an Alpine ski World Cup race, in 1968, and one of the finest Alpine skiers produced by the United States.
Randall trains twice a day nearly year round and wants to build on her success at the 2006 Turin Olympics, where she placed ninth in the sprint for the best Olympic result in cross-country skiing by a U.S. woman.
For a country that is among the leaders at the Winter Olympics -- it is second to Norway for most medals won -- the United States has surprisingly won just one medal in cross-country skiing, and that was back in 1976 when Bill Koch won silver in the 30km.
Randall, the first American woman to win a medal at the world championships, when she took silver in the 1.3-km event in the Czech Republic last year, has always stepped up to any challenge. Her attitude earned her the nickname "Kikkanimal" from team mates in high school who said they had never seen such intensity.
When she packs for Vancouver, Randall will take her copy of 'Without Limits', a 1998 film about the late American runner Steve Prefontaine, which she likes to watch the night before her races for added inspiration.
"The hardest thing is keeping yourself pushing the limit every single day," said Randall, who drives around her home state of Alaska in a vehicle emblazoned with her unique name and 'XC4USA' license plates. "But I know that if I ski well a medal is not out of the realm of possibility."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)