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What A Badass Olympic Skier Can Teach Us About Work-Life Balance

Team USA has sent 20 fathers to Pyeongchang, but only one mother: Kikkan Randall. A three-time winner of cross-country skiing’s World Cup sprint title, Randall was part of a baby boom that happened after the 2014 Sochi Olympics, when four of the sport’s top athletes took time off from racing to give birth.1

These women didn’t just return to work — they came back to the highest level of a demanding sport, and all four are expected to compete in Pyeongchang. But Randall is doing so without the same safety net that her European colleagues have. And that’s left her facing the same challenge that many other American women experience: how to balance a grueling career with the demands of new motherhood. A job as arduous as being a professional athlete (or, say, director of policy planning at the State Department) has little room for compromise or scaling back, and that means that much of the parenting must fall to a spouse or outside help.

The 2018 Games will be the fifth Olympic appearance for Randall, a 35-year-old cross-country skier from Alaska.2 In 2008, Randall, nicknamed Kikkanimal, made history by becoming the first American woman to win a World Cup in cross-country skiing. And in Pyeongchang, she has a legitimate shot at a medal.

Mothers-to-be in most professions take time off after childbirth, but Randall’s situation was different: “I was on my maternity leave while I was pregnant,” she said. Because she remained on the U.S. ski team roster, she retained access to her health insurance, and most of her sponsors continued their support, in exchange for appearances, social media plugs and other publicity. She resumed training about three weeks after her son, Breck, was born in April 2016, with the support of her husband, Jeff Ellis, who parented while she trained. Having a husband who is willing to take on parental duties and, most importantly, to do so “unbegrudgingly” has been “a huge piece of the puzzle,” Randall said.

There’s no such thing as a part-time return to work in elite sports, which usually require multiple training sessions each day, along with naps, massages, full nights of sleep and other recovery rituals. Of course, sleepless nights are almost a given for the first years of a child’s life. And Randall said that knowing Ellis will “take care of those night-time wakings before a race really helps.”

She noted that her peers in Scandinavian countries have the benefit of paid time off for fathers as well as mothers. (Of the 35 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. is the only one without paid maternal leave.)

Paid maternal leave policies around the world

Among countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2016

Country Length of paid maternity leave, in weeks
1 Greece 43.0
2 United Kingdom 39.0
3 Slovakia 34.0
4 Czech Republic 28.0
5 Ireland 26.0
6 Hungary 24.0
7 Italy 21.7
8 Estonia 20.0
9 Poland 20.0
10 Australia 18.0
11 Chile 18.0
12 Denmark 18.0
13 New Zealand 18.0
14 Finland 17.5
15 Canada 17.0
16 Austria 16.0
17 France 16.0
18 Latvia 16.0
19 Luxembourg 16.0
20 Netherlands 16.0
21 Spain 16.0
22 Turkey 16.0
23 Belgium 15.0
24 Slovenia 15.0
25 Germany 14.0
26 Israel 14.0
27 Japan 14.0
28 Switzerland 14.0
29 Iceland 13.0
30 Norway 13.0
31 South Korea 12.9
32 Sweden 12.9
33 Mexico 12.0
34 Portugal 6.0
35 United States 0.0

Source: OECD Family Database

Randall’s Finnish peer Aino-Kaisa Saarinen had a child around the same time that Randall did, and she told me that her country has a mandatory four-month paid leave for mothers, which she started a month before her due date. After the baby was born, she and her partner received further benefits, including leave that they could split as they chose between the parents. “In our case, the dad took all that,” Saarinen said. (Not to mention the paid leave that fathers are entitled to.)

Randall has competed in the predominantly Europe-based World Cup without that kind of paid leave but with Breck in tow for the past two seasons. It hasn’t always been easy. Although she emerged from childbirth without any serious complications (not all women do, as tennis star Serena Williams’s story demonstrates), the snap in her muscles didn’t return right away. And during her time off, the U.S. team “had gotten so strong,” Randall said. She sat out the second World Cup weekend after her return because she wasn’t skiing as well as her teammates.

There have been many men who’ve continued competing after adding a child to their family, said Chris Grover, head coach of the U.S. cross-country ski team, but very few women. “Many of these guys are not primary caregivers and tend to come to the races Thursday and head back home on Sunday night or Monday,” Grover said. And while fathers may experience sleepless nights just like mothers do, they don’t need to physically recover after childbirth.

Randall and her husband have built their work and family life around her job. Ellis secured a job as a media coordinator for the ski federation, which allowed him to travel the World Cup circuit with her. “He got the job so that we could see each other in the winter,” Randall said.

Randall breast-fed her son until about a month into the racing season. Realizing that there would be at least four mothers coming to the World Cup with babies, the ski federation worked with the athlete commission, national ski federations and organizing committees to make formal recommendations encouraging race venues to provide a “baby room” with appropriate provisions so that moms can breast-feed and care for their infants as needed. Randall thinks she used these rooms much more than others in her cohort of new mothers. She said that may be because the others live in Europe, where most of the races take place, and can travel back and forth between home and races on a weekly basis.

In Finland, Saarinen benefits from laws that guarantee child care facilities will be available. “The government also pays for most of it,” she said. That’s not all. “We also get child money from the government, which is about 200€ per month, a baby box with 48 items, and free and mandatory monthly health checks for baby and for the mom.”

Things are different in the U.S. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 62 percent of parents of infant or preschool-age children report difficulty finding affordable, high-quality child care in their community, regardless of their income.

Because Randall and Ellis are both working while on the race circuit, their parents and some friends have stepped in to provide child care, but paying travel and accomodations for these helpers isn’t cheap. In part because of the cost, Breck won’t be accompanying his parents to Pyeongchang. After calculating that it would run something like $15,000 to $20,000 for them to bring him and a caretaker along, they decided to send him to his grandparents’ house in Canada instead.

As well as things are working out for her now, Randall acknowledges that her current situation is not sustainable. And it probably wouldn’t be scalable to the whole workplace either. Grover acknowledged that it’s difficult to imagine a ski team traveling around Europe with all the coaching staff’s kids, in addition to the team athletes.

Randall plans to retire from racing after this season but will remain in the sport. She is president of the U.S. branch of Fast and Female, a group that encourages girls to participate in sports, and she’s running for election as an athlete representative on the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission. After two decades of competition, it feels right, she said. Success in a career like sports requires giving it your all, and that means family life can’t always come first. For a parent who wants to substantially take part in parenting, eventually something must give.


  1. The others were Marit Bjoergen of Norway (whose silver medal in Saturday’s skiathlon earned her the title of most-decorated woman at the Olympic Winter Games), five-time Olympic medalist Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland and Katja Visnar of Slovenia.

  2. When I was an elite skier in the 2000s, Randall was an up-and-coming star. I never skied fast enough to make the Olympic team, and the U.S. women’s teams in 2002 and 2006 were unlikely contenders for medals. But since then, thanks in large part to Randall’s performance and leadership, the American women have become a force to reckon with — earning both World Cup and world championship titles. Minnesota native Jessie Diggins won the final World Cup race before Pyeongchang.

Christie Aschwanden is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for science.