ALPENSIA, South Korea — Fortieth place was certainly not the finish American cross-country skier Kikkan Randall had in mind for Saturday’s first medal event of these PyeongChang Olympics. We would expect nothing less from a veteran of five Olympics, a fierce competitor who has made this grueling, lung-capacity-testing sport a way of life.
The feeling here?
Randall gets credit just for being at the start. Returning to the top of her sport after taking a break to give birth to her son, Randall earns a spot on a team full of a new brand of American sporting heroes, joining women such as tennis star Serena Williams who prove that having a baby doesn’t mean giving up an athletic career.
With openness in talking about a subject that for so long was never discussed and with abilities that for so long were assumed to disappear after delivering a child, Randall carries a message of female empowerment that is timely, necessary, and welcome in today’s sea-changing female awakening movement.
“I think it’s really important because in a sport like cross-country skiing where it takes so long to get to the top, you really just start getting to the fun part when you’re kind of in your prime child-bearing age,” Randall said after completing the race in which Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla took home the first gold medal of these Olympics.
“It was something where I didn’t want to have to make a choice either way, I was curious to see if I could do it. And thankfully I’d had an amazing career to that point and I was going to be happy no matter what happened. I’ve come back surprisingly strong. I love being a mom.”
I love that she is a mom. And one of the seven new moms, Randall said, who have returned to the sport the last couple of years. Among them? Silver medal winner Marit Bjoergen of Norway, whose finish here earned her an 11th career medal, making her the most decorated female winter Olympian of all time. Bjoergen, who said after the race, “I am here to make medals,” could tie or break the record for Winter Olympics medals (13) by the end of these Games.
You mean it’s possible to make medals and babies, too? Bjoergen delivered her son Marius in 2015. Imagine that.
“I think we’re finding ways to make people supportive of it,” Randall said. “The international ski federation, FIS, has done some things to support us, the American team has been really good for me, things like allowing you to take time, giving you the chance to work your way back in.
“I think its sends a really good message because the sport benefits from having its top athletes involved longer. I know my team has really enjoyed having my little guy around, and it’s cool to know you can make a lifestyle around it. In many ways having my son has really made me appreciate what I can do as a skier, kind of make the most of the time I have and come back strong.”
Among the 244 US Olympians, 21 are parents — 20 fathers and one mother, Randall.
When the Sochi Games ended four years ago, it seemed unlikely a heartbroken Randall would even be back.
This is a sport that rotates two different competitive styles — freestyle and classic — every Olympics. And as an elite freestyle skier, the Americans’ top hope four years ago to break a then-38-year streak without a cross-country skiing medal, Randall missed out on the semifinals by .05 seconds. At 31 and looking at eight more years till freestyle came around again, her Olympic dream could have been done.
But back she came, ready to ride this one out with eyes wide open, appreciating every moment of what she has decided will be her last Olympic adventure.
“Definitely my last,” she said. “I’m enjoying it. There’s some other fun things in life. I’m 35. I’ve been dragging my family on the World Cup for the last two years and that’s a big sacrifice for them. I want to be able to spend some more time just focused on family and other projects and things.”
Randall may not be done competing here yet. She’s still available for selection by her coaches in other individual and team events. But with five Olympics and plenty of lessons to share with younger teammates such as Jessie Diggins, who took fifth Saturday, Randall has left her mark.
“I really feel like at this point the girls are mentoring me,” she said with a laugh, small locks of purple-pink dyed hair sneaking out from under her ski helmet. “I took the year off when I was pregnant and then I came back to racing, maybe because I’ve done it so many times I kind of forget what the right routine is. Like Jessie decided today to have breakfast a second time instead of a regular lunch. She said that and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a good idea, I’m going to do that.’ ”
When the teacher became a mother, the student became the teacher. The circle of life. How wonderful to see the sports world slowly catch up to what should have been obvious all along.
Moms can do anything.Tara Sullivan can be reached at Tara.Sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTara.