Meet our local Olympians with ties to the Vail Valley |

Meet our local Olympians with ties to the Vail Valley

Olympic slalom gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin, of Eagle-Vail, looks to defend her title in Pyeongchang, South Korea. She'll be competing in a few more disciplines this go round. Shiffrin is one of many Olympic athletes with ties to the Vail Valley.
Townsend Bessent | Weekly file photo |

The Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games will begin on Friday, Feb. 9, in South Korea. Twenty athletes will have connections to Vail through residency, schools and the ski club, but here’s a few longtime locals to cheer for.

U.S. athletes:

Lindsey Vonn // alpine skiER

Vail resident Lindsey Vonn began the 2015-16 season by breaking her ankle in preseason training. She was able to race most of the season, however, and won nine World Cup races between December of 2015 and February of 2016.

In late February of 2016, she crashed and fractured her knee in a few places, causing her to miss the rest of that season. Getting back to racing in November of 2016, Vonn crashed in training and severely fractured her arm. Yet she still managed to race that season and even earned a win in January of 2017.

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“Once I got things going at the end of last season, I was right back where I left off,” Vonn said as the 2017-18 season was getting underway.

But the season did not start strong for Vonn. She missed the podium in November of 2017, crashing in Lake Louise, the venue where she has found the most success in her career. She then crashed again at a race in December, suffering spinal joint dysfunction in her lower back. Things were not looking good.

Yet, in a surprise to many, Vonn returned to the top of the podium the following weekend, winning a super-G in Val D’Isere, France, for her 78th career win. She also notched another super-G win on Jan. 26 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.

The confidence boost will be exactly what she needs heading into the Olympics.

“As long as I’m healthy and I’m confident, then I’ll be in a great position when I get to Pyeongchang,” Vonn said.

­—John LaConte

Mikaela Shiffrin // alpine skiER

Eagle-Vail ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin arrived in Sochi, Russia, midway through the 2014 Olympic Games, a teenage phenom ready to make her mark on the Olympics.

At a press conference after she competed, she was already looking toward the 2018 games, telling reporters she dreamed of winning five gold medals in the Pyeongchang Olympics.

She followed that statement with, “I’m sorry I just admitted that to you all.”

Shiffrin went on to win the gold medal in slalom in Sochi, Russia, the youngest slalom champion in Olympic history.

This time around, she doesn’t exactly say she hopes to win five gold medals; yet she doesn’t disavow the statement. Over the last few months, she has won World Cup races in four of the five disciplines, and has qualified to compete in super-G, where her top finish this season was fifth.

“My ideal result would be winning medals in the disciplines that I compete,” Shiffrin said.

—Ed Stoner

Tess Johnson // mogul skiER

Tess Johnson is just 17, but has already earned a number of titles.

Youth volunteer, soccer team captain, U.S. Ski Team member, the list goes on.

In 2018, Johnson adds another title to the list — Olympian.

She went into the season facing tough competition on the always-competitive U.S. Women’s Freestyle Team.

“I always believed that I could (make the Olympic team),” Johnson said. “But, to be honest, it’s one of those things that you never think is going to happen until it does.”

To focus on skiing, she had to take time away from other endeavors.

Another title Johnson currently holds is high school senior. The Edwards resident attends Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy.

“I’m going to try to do as much school as I can, on the road, which I know won’t be easy, as it never has been,” she said. “But I’m kind of just trying to focus on the present as much as I can.”

—John LaConte

Meghan Tierney // snowboardcross RACER

While at a training camp in Austria in November of 2016, Eagle resident Meghan Tierney crashed and broke her back on the L3 vertebrae. The snowboardcross racer was helivaced out of the venue and transported back to the U.S.

She was out all of December and January, but by the end of February 2017 she was back in the starting gate.

“As soon as she started feeling better, she started pushing herself,” her father, Chris Tierney, said. “It was too soon.”

Meghan Tierney started the 2017-18 season with a string of 25th- to 31st-place finishes in the first four World Cup races. Her Olympic prospects were not looking good. A 19th-place finish at the second-to-last qualifier of the season, however, gave her some confidence, but as the fourth-finishing American in that race, she needed to bump her way up further. She went into the final Olympic qualifier ranked 26th, but ended up finishing seventh, the top-finishing American, earning herself a spot on the Olympic team.

“Having that slow start made her hungry, it made her work hard,” Chris Tierney Sr. said. “The timing ended up being perfect.”

—John LaConte

Jake Pates // halfpipe snowboardER

Going into the prestigious Dew Tour 2017 contest in December, Jake Pates said he had been working on a couple new tricks, but didn’t want to reveal what they were.

The 19-year-old grew up snowboarding at Vail and Beaver Creek resorts and skateboarding at a board shop his family owned in Eagle, where he lives.

“If I could do the run that I want, I think it could be a podium run, and it could definitely be one of the top American runs,” he said. “I’ve got a couple tricks in the bag, too, that I haven’t pulled out yet.”

When pressed, Pates would not reveal the tricks.

“I might keep it in the DL,” he said.

Eight days later, Pates was on top of the podium at the Dew Tour after landing a never-before-seen trick in front of the same field we will see at the Olympics. Pates became the first and only American to notch a win in an Olympic qualifier.

Pates credits his parents — Eagle’s Chris and Amy Pates — with much of his success, as they had always supported him in his goal of becoming a professional snowboarder. While the sport has its fair share of danger, Pates is quick to admit he’s really in it for one reason: the fun.

“I don’t have anything to lose, and I’m just trying to have fun,” he said.

—John LaConte

International athletes:

Chirs Del Bosco // ski cross RACER

Eagle-Vail’s Chris Del Bosco, a member of the Canadian Ski Cross Team, has qualified for the Olympics every time the sport has been contested — 2010 in Vancouver, British Columbia, 2014 in Sochi, Russia, and now 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Over the course of his career, Del Bosco has notched 10 World Cup wins, 26 podiums, a win at the 2011 FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships and two X Games gold medals. He finished fourth in at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, crashing in spectacular fashion while attempting to pass into the gold-medal spot just before the finish line.

In Sochi in 2014, he didn’t make it out of the first round.

He’s skied the 2018 Olympic course back in 2016, finishing 15th, while being what he said was about “60 percent” at the time with a back injury. He said the course suits him.

“It’s open. It has big jumps, lots of features. It’s right up my alley,” he said.

This year in Pyeongchang, there will be three days of training for the athletes to get used to the venue, and then Del Bosco chases his dream.

“It would be huge, for sure,” he said. “It’s one of those things that you dream about growing up, being an Olympic gold medalist. I was close in Vancouver. I had bad luck in Sochi. Hopefully, the third time’s a charm.”

—Chris Freud

Sarah Schleper // alpine skiER

Vail’s Sarah Schleper, 39, a 15-year veteran of the U.S. Ski Team, was married to Federico Gaxiola in 2007 and became a Mexican citizen in 2014. She has been competing for Mexico, including the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Beaver Creek as well as in St. Moritz, Switzerland, at 2017 Worlds.

Pyeongchang will be her fifth Olympics.

“I am looking forward to going to the other side of the world for this Olympic Games,” Schleper said. “I was in (Nagano,) Japan, when I was 19, and that seems like another lifetime.”

Schleper wants to use the sport to transcend international boundaries.

“Mexico is a wonderfully vibrant and beautiful nation,” she said. “We have a lot of Mexicans coming to Vail and it is such a great connection for my family and my roots.”

To that end, Schleper is working with Ski & Snowboard Vail, coaching young Mexican skiers. She is taking one to the Youth Olympics.

While Schleper competed in all five disciplines at the 2017 Worlds — and really loved returning to the speed events — she’s focusing on the GS in Pyeongchang in February.

“I just want to go out and ski clean and with tempo and do a performance I am proud of,” she said.

—Chris Freud

Rakai Tait // halfpipe snowboardER

Rakai Tait was born in California, lived in Switzerland when he was 7 years old and learned to snowboard there, lived in his father’s home country of New Zealand for a few years after that and obtained citizenship, and now lives in Eagle County.

Rakai Tait graduated Vail Mountain School in 2017 and by that time he had pretty much locked in his spot for the Olympics with two top-15 finishes and a top-30 worldwide ranking. He got the call in November saying he would definitely be a member of the New Zealand Olympic team.

“I still can’t really believe it,” he said. “It’s a huge pressure off my back.”

Rakai’s father, Dwaine Tait, was born on the North Island in New Zealand, and Rakai and Dwaine talked often about their connection to that country.

“It came up a few years ago, I was talking to my dad — we have a lot of family that lives in New Zealand — and we just decided that it would be really cool opportunity to try to pursue,” Rakai Tait said of competing for New Zealand.

Nevertheless, Rakai Tait will still be able to represent his home in Minturn when he competes, as he will be riding a board made by Weston Snowboards, a small company based out of Minturn.

“I’m definitely super stoked to be repping Weston snowboards,” Rakai Tait said. “It’s a great board from a great company.”

—John LaConte

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