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At the Olympics, Motherhood Skis Away With a Gold and a Bronze

When Kikkan Randall and Marit Bjorgen shared the Olympic podium after the women’s team sprint freestyle, it was a significant moment for their sport. It was also a great moment for mothers.

First the significance. Randall, 35, and her teammate Jessie Diggins became the first American cross-country skiers to win a gold medal, and the first from the United States to get any kind of medal at the Olympics since Bill Koch won silver in 1976. And Norway’s Bjorgen, 37, won bronze to become the most decorated winter athlete, with 14 Olympic medals, including five in Pyeongchang. (After the winning the 30-kilometer race Sunday, she finished the Games with two gold, a silver and two bronze.)

Both women are also relatively new mothers. Randall’s son, Breck, will be 2 in April. She is the only mother on Team U.S.A., which has 20 fathers. Bjorgen’s son, Marius, turned 2 in December.

Motherhood presents a challenge for any woman trying to juggle work and family, but it is an intense physical and logistical challenge for elite cross-country skiers — several hours a day of grueling training, extra sleep requirements and a brutal travel schedule across six or seven European countries from November through April.

Women’s cross-country skiing experienced something of a baby boom about two years ago. Seven elite ski racers on the World Cup circuit, including Bjorgen and Randall, have toddlers now — and all had babies within about six months of one another in late 2015 and in 2016.

It’s not a coincidence that the top women in the sport gave birth in the same window. With world championships in odd-numbered years and an Olympics every fourth even-numbered year, 2016 was essentially a gap year in cross-country racing — a year without either international event. Which made it a good time to start a family.

After their pregnancies, Randall and her fellow competitors shared parenting advice about sleep training and getting back into shape. It seems to have worked. Two of the women ended up on top of an Olympic podium at these Games and two more came close.

They also worked together to persuade the International Ski Federation to support them. Randall and Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen were able to get federation officials to provide credentials for caregivers and to find space for baby rooms — stocked with diapers and toys — that doubled as a warm place for children and the people watching over them during long events.

“Men can have families, and they don’t ever have to miss a single race,” said Randall, who has pink highlights in her blond hair and is as ripped as a ninja warrior. “Knowing we were all having babies, we lobbied to have some support for moms that first season back. It’s the first time the international federation has provided that kind of support.”

While those changes helped, all of the other mothers lived in Europe and didn’t face the same challenges Randall did in packing up her family and traveling for six months out of the year. For Randall, the only way to make the ski season successful as both an athlete and a parent was to enlist the support of her teammates.

Their buy-in was never in doubt. Randall has long been at the elite level of cross-country skiing, and several of her current teammates idolized her when they were teenagers. The goal was for Randall to spend time training with the team and still be there for her family. It helped that her husband, Jeff Ellis, a former Canadian ski racer, worked as a media coordinator for the International Ski Federation. Both sets of grandparents have also provided extensive caregiving during the racing season.

And there were benefits to having Breck along for the ride, said Sadie Bjornsen, another team member. Bjornsen, who calls herself a “for kids,” said playing with Breck on the road helped keep her from thinking about skiing every waking hour.

“Sometimes I will come in after a race and be bummed out about how I’ve done, and I’ll just go over and hug Breck, and it will make me feel better,” she said.

Randall, who plans to retire after this Olympics, recently won election to the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission. She hopes she can use her experience as a mother and an athlete to help other Olympic families.

In the end, she did not bring her son to the Olympics because the cost was so prohibitive. Instead, Breck stayed in Toronto with her husband’s parents, and the separation was painful, said Randall. She said she wanted to work with the I.O.C. to create affordable housing for family members at future Olympics.

She hopes that seeing women like herself and Bjorgen on the Olympic podium will convince a new generation of athletes that it doesn’t have to choose between an Olympic medal and motherhood. In fact, she asserted, the two can work well together. She recalled sharing a moment with Bjorgen when they were each presented a stuffed white Soohorang tiger, the Olympic mascot, during the podium ceremony. They looked at each other with a knowing laugh.