Retirement From Sport: Kikkan Randall – 5x Olympian and Olympic Gold Medalist
Over my years as a professional athlete I have seen so many athletes retire and move on from professional sport. Some have thrived in their next phase of life. Some have maintained close ties to the sport that they called their job and career for so long, while others have moved entirely away from it and shifted their focus and motivation all together – beginning an entirely new chapter.
Others have struggled. Whether it is the loss of identity, to lack of confidence in a tangible and transferable skill set, to decreased inspiration and drive for the next phase, to even the negative physical implications that can arise from years of training and competing at the highest level – transitions can be hard.
One of the themes I have heard repeatedly is that there exists a genuine lack of support for retiring athletes. Things like financial management and planning, career coaches, mentors, and advisors to help with things like resume writing are all things that would help athletes transition. However they largely don’t exist.
As part of this series, I am interviewing former professional athletes across a broad range of sports, focusing on their process of retirement – the ups and downs, the planning, the emotional and physical changes and more. In addition I have asked for their tips and advice for those who are considering retirement soon. I hope these interviews prove to be informative and helpful as the idea of moving on from professional sport comes into vision.
In this week’s interview, we hear from Kikkan Randall – a super star in the sport of cross-country skiing and someone who has won the hearts of so many Americans. Kikkan is a 5x Olympian, including winning the United States’ first ever gold medal for cross-country skiing in the 2018 winter Olympics in Pyeonchang. Kikkan has won 17 U.S. National titles, has earned nearly 30 World Cup podiums, and has the highest finish ever for an American woman at the World Championships. She is also the first American woman to win a World Cup race and win a World Cup discipline title. Kikkan made her Olympic debut at the age of 19 at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
In April 2018 Kikkan retired from professional sport after a 17 year career spanning from 2001 through 2018. Kikkan said that she had planned for and knew that the end of the 2018 season would be her last, as she felt it was time to re-focus her priorities on her family. For Kikkan, it made her final year particularly special and she said she felt she was able to leave everything out on the race course as well as fully embrace and appreciate the people, the successes and the experiences of that year. One of the things that I personally enjoyed reading about was how Kikkan knew that staying active was core to her. She initially approached things with recklass abandon, but quickly realized that after so many years of having a structured routine the structure was something she craved and created focus for her. So, she said she created some new physical goals for herself that didn’t revolve around cross-country skiing and brought the structured training back. This comment stuck with me as I imagine MANY professional and non-professional athletes alike can relate to this and the absence of structure can be a difficult transition. I liked how she was able to recognize this as something that was important for her to maintain, even when her athletic goals had changed. I also enjoyed reading about how Kikkan took advantage of the opportunities that immediately presented themselves while allowing herself time to work through the ultimate direction she wanted to go. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!
Can you give us a bit of background about yourself. What sport did you play? At what age did you turn professional? How long were you competing for as a professional athlete? Did you go to University?
I was a multi-sport athlete growing up. In high school I ran cross-country and track and raced cross-country skiing in the winter. At age 16 I decided to make cross-country skiing my focus. In 2002, at age 19, I went to my first Olympics. That experience inspired me to go after the US team’s first Olympic medal in women’s cross-country. That was a journey that took me 16 years, through five Olympics and culminated in an Olympic gold medal together with my teammate Jessie Diggins at the 2018 Olympics. I turned professional right after high school when I opted to take prize money from the national championships and started recruiting local sponsors to fund my ski racing. I was able to be a professional from 2001 through 2018. I started my undergraduate degree at Alaska Pacific University in the fall of 2001. While ski racing I was able to accumulate approximately 70% of the required credits. I’m now back in school and am trying to finish the remaining 30% by the end of 2021.
What are you doing today from a career perspective?
Since I officially concluded my professional ski racing career in April 2018, I have been making a career out of motivational speaking and working as a brand ambassador for several companies who had sponsored me as an athlete. I sit on several boards, most of which are non-profit, including the International Olympic Committee and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee. I’m currently exploring strategies to build my brand through social media, a book and a small inspirational products company as well.
How did the sport define you? Did you feel like it was a big part of your identity?
Sport has definitely been at the core of my identity for most of my life. I love the feeling of being fit and strong and being physically capable of doing long runs, hard bike rides and at least a dozen pull-ups. Most people know me because of sport and most of my friends have been made through sport. I love being physically active every day.
How long were you contemplating retirement before announcing your plans to leave the sport?
I wanted to be able to put more focus on my family so I knew I was going to finish my career at the end of the 2018 season. It was nice to know where the end was because it gave me a chance to leave everything out on the trail and have no regrets, and it also allowed me to soak in my final year and appreciate all the places and people and the process.
What were your feelings around retirement? Were you nervous? sad? excited? conflicted?
I was excited to be able to put more attention towards my family. I knew it was going to be bittersweet and that I would miss the people especially. But I also felt ready for a change.
Were you concerned at all about loss of identity?
No. I thought that was something I wouldn’t struggle with. I felt I had plenty of other opportunities to continue using the reputation I had built, just for performance off the snow.
Many athletes talk about falling into depression after their career has ended. Did you experience that at all?
No but it did generate feelings that I wasn’t entirely prepared for. The biggest change for me was the loss of structure. I no longer had clear goals, no way to measure progress, no clear path forward.
What were your feelings around decreasing your training and exiting competition? How did you address that?
I knew I wanted to stay active, just not be a slave to my training plan and HAVE TO train twice a day. I was initially excited to do whatever I wanted. But I quickly realized that without a plan to follow I was paralyzed by indecision. There were too many choices and because I was doing everything, I no longer felt my self improving or being strong at what I was used to.
For the competition piece, I was excited to try different types of racing. Still pushing myself and competing but not as a professional cross-country skier. I wanted to push myself in a way that was more about whether I could actually do something well (like a marathon) versus having to try to win the race.
When you retired did you already have a plan in place for what was next, or did you approach it only after retirement? If the former, did you find it difficult to both focus on your future while staying committed to competing at the highest level still?
I had some plans in the works that I could jump right into. Mostly work with existing partners and the opportunity to speak. But I definitely didn’t have a long term plan. I didn’t fully understand what my values were and what my greatest strengths and interests were.
How did you determine what would be next? What process did you go through to figure it out? Did you have a hard time seeing the path forward?
I started with experimentation and following different opportunities to see where they led. The speaking took off right away and that worked well in the first two years. After traveling a lot however, I realized that I didn’t want to be on the road constantly. That led me to take advantage of the ‘Next Step’ program offered by the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and I reached out to an Adecco career coach through the USOPC (US Olympic and Paralympic Committee) ACE program to figure out what other avenues I should explore.
What was your timeline for determining your next steps? Did you feel pressure or anxiety around this?
I was fortunate that I didn’t feel immediate pressure to have to figure out my next steps. I was able to just follow opportunities and start to build some other pathways on the side. If I didn’t have the financial stability to be able to take my time in developing my career paths, that would have definitely made me more anxious.
Do you look back with any regrets or wish you had done anything differently in this process?
I wish I had finished my undergraduate degree while I was still racing. I don’t think it would have added as much stress as I thought it was going to at the time, and it would have been really nice to have that to fall back on immediately after retiring from skiing.
How long would you say it took before you felt like you had found your stride after retiring?
I have never felt like I’ve lost my stride since I’ve retired, but I’m just now (2 years later) starting to feel like I have a real road map of where I want to go career wise in the next 10 years.
What are you top 5 things you wish someone had taught you/ told you before you retired?
– pay attention to things like the USOPC ACE program while competing, to develop as many skills, platforms and networking as possible.
- Finish an undergraduate degree if you can.
- Assistance setting goals and future planning that doesn’t revolve around sport.
Retirement for athletes can be a very scary thing – many people don’t know how to take that next step. Are there any resources you used that you found helpful?
Staying connected with my NGB (National Governing Body) and the USOPC. Connecting with other athletes (particularly in my sport of like sports) that have gone through the transition and hearing about what they did. The USOPC ACE program has offered incredible resources.
Are there resources or tools that you wish had been made available to you or to others to help facilitate retirement and transition out of professional sport? What do you see as the biggest pitfalls for athletes right now?
I wish there was more follow-up and opportunities to stay connected with your NGB. I heard that the Netherlands has a two-year “de-training” program for their athletes that helps them ease out of the physical training but also provides opportunities to still work with coaches, trainers, sports psych, etc. and keeps them connected with the current athletes. I think more “de-training” support would be awesome. Access to good options for health care post career can be really important too. It’s hard to lose your source of identity, income and benefits suddenly and all at once.
Anything else you’d like to add or that you think is relevant to add?
More work on who you are, what your values are and discovering strengths, weaknesses, work styles, personality, etc. while competing could make you a better athlete but also set you up better for understanding the transition after sport.