ANCHORAGE - Now that she's the best cross-country skier in America, a two-time Olympian and winner of a World Cup race, it's easy to imagine Kikkan Randall as a little hellion on skis, anxious to jump off hills and go as fast as she could.
She was all that and more, but at first Randall didn't exactly embrace her introduction to Anchorage Junior Nordic League skiing.
"I think I was 6 years old, and that first year it felt like a lot of work. I complained to my parents and ended up missing a season."
But over the course of the next year, Randall realized she missed nordic skiing and returned, displaying a trait that would mark her for decades.
"I loved being in front," she said.
"I didn't have the best technique and sometimes my mom said she laughed so hard at the way I kind of flailed around.
"But I had to be at the front."
Randall's aunt, Betsy Haines, the 1980 cross country Olympian, recalls: "She had terrible form, but she just had that motor and desire.
"It's important in skate skiing to have a really good shift of your weight, but Kikkan didn't have any of that. And not the most fluid of poling motions, either.
"But she could climb and outpace anyone. She had no fear."
Randall may be the most prominent of the thousands of young Anchorage skiers who first glided on snow as a Junior Nordic skier.
Each winter there are two sessions for young skiers between the ages of 6 and 14. The first began Nov. 10. The second, which begins Jan. 12, has been full the last two years, said Diane Moxness, executive director of the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage.
Some 620 "unduplicated" skiers enrolled in Junior Nordic last year, Moxness said. Some youngsters sign up for both sessions.
At its inception, the 23-year-old Junior Nordic program was one of the few cross country skiing training groups in town, said Dirk Sisson, owner of Great Harvest Bread Company and a Junior Nordic founder.
"It was just a small little program at Kincaid," said Sisson, who took over as director in 1988. "We had about 50 kids back then - and about a dozen coaches. That was more or less it for younger kids."
Today, there are at least a dozen different training programs tailored to the full spectrum of Southcentral skiers. There are programs aimed at tots, programs for women, programs for national-caliber skiers, programs suited to grandparents.
"When I was in high school (as a dominant runner and skier for East High, Randall was the Anchorage Daily News prep athlete of the year in 2000 and 2001), that was the only way to race," Randall said. "Now we have Alaska Winter Stars, APU (Randall's team), Alaska Nordic Racing and others, so it's kept more people skiing at a higher level."
And despite Southcentral's scant snow cover that has limited skiing so far this winter, the popularity of the training groups hasn't waned.
A waiting list of more than two dozen skiers is hoping for an opening in Anchorage's Muni Masters program aimed at adults. Marty Parsons of the Eagle River Nordic Ski Club reports that 122 signed up at the club's ski swap, more than double the normal number.
"We're off to a great start," Parsons said.
But coaches of beginning Junior Nordic skiers know the idea is to make the sport fun - even if it doesn't involve much skiing.
"The biggest thing I gained was just being comfortable on skis, really having fun with it," Randall said. "It's physically hard, but I learned to enjoy that too.
"It's a great program. It's essential for the state if we're going to develop young talent."
About 50 Anchorage coaches - many of them parents with children in the program - participate in Junior Nordic, Moxness said.
"We have coaches who were Junior Nordic skiers themselves," Moxness said.
And when they gather for a training session, Junior Nordic skiers are hard to miss.
"At any given site, there's a limit of how many kids we can have. At Kincaid, Hillside and Russian Jack, you can't physically have more than 100," Moxness said. "Unlike soccer, where can have one coach for 100 kids, we try to have one coach for every 10."
And who knows, one of those 10 may end up having a motor and desire like Randall's.
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