A record 10 Alaskans headed to Olympics

Posted: Friday, January 25, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Five Alaskans were named to the U.S. Olympic Cross-country Ski Team Monday, bringing to 10 the number of Alaskans headed to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City next month.

It is the largest group of Alaska athletes ever to compete in the Olympics. The previous high was the six Alaskans who competed in the 1998 Winter Games.

''It's amazing for Alaska,'' said first-time Olympian Lars Flora of Anchorage. ''That has to be up there for the most athletes per state. That says a lot about Alaska and its people.''

Flora brought the final number to 10 by winning a spot on the 16-member cross-country team. Also on the team are Aelin Peterson of Fairbanks and Nina Kemppel, Kikkan Randall and Wendy Wagner, all of Anchorage.

They join five other Alaskans who are bound for the Olympics: ski jumper Alan Alborn of Anchorage; snowboarder Rosey Fletcher of Girdwood; and biathletes Jeremy Teela and Rachel Steer of Anchorage and Jay Hakkinen of Kasilof.

Kemppel, 31, is a four-time Olympian and an 18-time national champion who has said this will be her final year of racing. If that's the case, she appears to have an heir apparent in Randall, who turned 19 on New Year's Eve and won her first national championship the following week.

Randall gives Alaska its first two-generation Olympic family. Her aunt Betsy Haines was a member of the 1980 Olympic team, and her uncle Chris Haines was on the 1976 Olympic team.

Betsy Haines said her niece has been planning on being a second-generation Olympian since she was a child.

When she was about 11, Randall was asked about her aspirations during a television interview after a Junior Nordic League race at Russian Jack Park.

''I'll never forget her confidence,'' Haines said. ''She said, I'm going to the Olympics.' Like it was a no-brainer.''

Alaska has medal contenders in Alan Alborn and Rosey Fletcher, a history-making skier in Kemppel -- who is the first American woman to compete on four Olympic ski teams -- and an obvious presence on the cross-country and biathlon squads.

Three of the eight members of the biathlon team are from Alaska, and half of the women on the cross-country team are Alaskans.

The Alaskans could very well make up the entire U.S. women's relay team. Kemppel, Wendy Wagner, Randall and Aelin Peterson have established themselves as the best in the nation, so much so that they had unofficially assured themselves of Olympic spots earlier in the season.

Flora was still battling for his spot a little more than a week ago.

He helped his cause greatly by winning the sprint race and placing third in the 30-kilometer race at the national championships held earlier this month in Bozeman, Mont.

Even after that, he still had moments of anxiety.

''I went through a lot of that right after nationals,'' Flora said. ''I would look at the rankings and think about how they could somehow not take me. I just couldn't see them not taking me. At some point, I just started believing I was gonna make the team.''

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