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Atypical sports stars aligned to put Team USA back on track on a 'magical', four-medal day

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — They are not your typical sports stars.

On Feb. 21, nine Americans put the Team USA back on track for a respectable Olympic performance with four medals — a gold, a silver and two bronze.

Led by the oldest woman to ever win an Olympic medal in alpine skiing, the group included the 35-year-old mother of a toddler, a 30-year-old former businesswoman who was persuaded to chase an Olympic dream at a CrossFit gym, and a group of women written off by everyone as medal longshots.

They proved, over and over on Wednesday, that success is a recipe you create yourself – and sometimes with a group of equally committed friends.

“I am so excited to be part of yesterday,” said bobsled pilot Elana Meyers Taylor, who earned silver with push athlete Lauren Gibbs, making her one of just three bobsled athletes to earn three Olympic medals in U.S. history. “To win our medal on the same day as some of these incredible women, it was “Yes, girl power! Women roar!’ A magical day to be a part of. That’s such an honor. And hopefully it does inspire more young girls to do what we do, and to go out there and live their dreams.”

The U.S. won four medals Wednesday, all claimed by women. There was Lindsey Vonn’s bronze in downhill to start the day, followed by the first cross-country Olympic medal since 1976.

That moment was decades in the making and happened because Salt Lake-born and Anchorage-raised Kikkan Randall, 35, figured out how to balance motherhood with professional sports.

“When I think about reading it as a story, something I might read to my son someday, it’s a fairytale,” Randall said the day after she and Jessie Diggins won gold in the cross country team sprint. “I remember competing in my first Olympics in Salt Lake City and finishing 44th and feeling so far from that podium. And yet, still feeling that glimmer of hope.” She sacrificed and trained through four more Olympic cycles, including carrying the torch for the program when the U.S. team dropped the women’s program briefly in 2006-2007. When everyone expected the women to win a medal in 2014 — just a year after she and Diggins won a World Championship in the same event, she had to decide “what the next phase of my life might be. I knew I couldn’t wait four years to start a family, but I also knew I wasn’t ready to leave this team and be done competing.”

Diggins picked up the mantle and Randall took a year off to have a son. She said returning to competition was tremendously challenging, but it was her affection for her teammates that made it possible.

Randall’s resilience alone would be worthy of admiration. Competing in her fifth Olympics, she held the record for the most Olympic performances without a medal (18) before earning her gold with Diggins, a thrilling, photo finish, that they said meant more to them because it was earned by every member of the team, even those who don’t get to compete in Pyeongchang.

It is those women, they said, who push them in training, who cheer them on, and who inspire them to embrace the absolute suffering cross country requires.

Their gold was followed by a bronze medal earned by the four women competing in speedskating’s team pursuit. It is difficult to calculate, let alone summarize the sacrifices made by Heather Bergsma, Brittany Bowe, Mia Manganello and Carlijn Schoutens. Bergsma and Bowe own different world records, and they’ve pushed each other throughout their careers, often sharing World Cup podiums.

In 2014, everyone expected them to come home with multiple medals, but the entire U.S. long track team left empty-handed, controversies about a bad training plan and poor performing race suits hanging over the team.

Bergsma married after the games and moved to the Netherlands, while Bowe suffered a concussion in a practice that stole a year from her, and even threatened to end her career.

On Wednesday night, they edged the Canadians for bronze thanks to a speedy start from Bergsma and Bowe, and then a gritty finish by Manganello. They skated together, smiling, holding hands, basking in a moment no one expected they’d have. It was the first long track medal for the U.S. women since 2002.

“Feeling blessed to be here,” Bowe said. “Couldn’t have done it without the team and happy to do it with these fine ladies. It has taken an army to get me here; it’s taken an army to get these ladies here. We couldn’t have done it without each other. It’s great to be part of Team USA.”

The night ended with Meyers Taylor and Gibbs earning silver. It has been an emotional nightmare as Meyers Taylor had to learn to compete on the World Cup tour without her mentor, Park City bobsled pilot Steve Holcomb, who passed away in May. Their last discussion was walking the track in Pyeongchang together, talking about lines and routes and strategies.

It was Gibbs and her other U.S. teammates who helped her on the days she didn’t think she’d ever find joy in a bobsled again.

“To walk away with any type of medal, with that kind of start to the year, and that kind of devastation to our program, is incredible,” she said. “(Lauren) helped me get through it. I didn’t even feel I could train at that point. I really felt kind of lost, and I knew the responsibility of leading this team would be up to me, and it was a really hard pill for me to swallow because I didn’t know if I was ready.”

Turns out Meyers Taylor was - and is - exactly the leader the team needed. And the women were the inspiration the U.S. team needed and U.S. fans deserve.

In fact, it goes beyond making sure Team USA leaves South Korea with a respectable number of Olympic medals.

“I think it is even more important in the days of the ‘me too’ hashtag that we have role models going out there that are succeeding that are female,” Meyers Taylor said. “It’s just an incredible day and one that should be celebrated.”

Their message was offered through their efforts, through their sacrifice, their resilience, and their persistence.

And the message is one that remains valuable, regardless of the challenges faced, regardless of the dream pursued.

“So, yeah, you can accomplish whatever you want, kids,” Gibbs said to laughter, “and adults!”