Resilient racer: SSCV para Alpine skier Audrey Crowley culminates season with super-G win against able-bodied athletes
U16 athlete persevered through DNF-filled campaign to take the top prize at the SYNC Cup Finals
Audrey Crowley’s 2022-2023 season was a microcosm of the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail para Alpine skier’s approach to skiing — and life.
“I don’t give up on any task even if it seems difficult at first,” she said when asked to describe herself.
A DNF-filled campaign forced the U16 skier — who arrived in Vail seven years ago by way of tiny Grafton, Wisconsin — to practice what she preaches. “My inability to finish definitely made my season tough,” she admitted.
At the March 26 SYNC Cup Championships super-G in Breckenridge, her resolve finally paid off. Crowley, who was born with a right arm that ends at the elbow, blitzed the demanding Cimarron track in 54.80 seconds, winning the overall — over able-bodied athletes — by 0.01-seconds.
“Every athlete goes through a rough patch or faces a string of results or DNFs that are not up to their normal standards,” said SSCV’s U16 head coach Charlie Stocker.
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“I would say this really is sort of the embodiment of perseverance through what was definitely a challenging patch results-wise. I wouldn’t say it was a surprise.”
Synching up for the SYNC Cup
Crowley didn’t bring a lot of positive momentum into the final weekend of the SYNC Cup, a USSA-scored race series aimed at Rocky Mountain Division U16 athletes (it also features select U14 athletes who’ve qualified via age-class open results as well as some U18 skiers).
The Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy sophomore posted two DNFs in the Wilder Dwight Memorial super-Gs in Aspen in January and a 19th-place finish in the event at the Rocky/Central U16 junior championships at Winter Park in March. Giant slalom was her most consistent event — it’s also her favorite — this season, but in the slalom, she posted seven-straight DNFs, including one at the U16 Rocky/Central U16 junior championships. It was at that event, a qualifier for the U16 nationals — her primary target for the year — that Crowley experienced a wake-up call.
“Due to not finishing, I didn’t qualify for nationals,” she explained. “It was an awakening to me because I realized that what I was doing on race day wasn’t my best skiing and I needed to kind of take a step back and think about what I’m doing to prepare for races.” The mental aspect of competition was a significant factor.
“Something about race day — even if I didn’t feel nervous — it made me feel like I had to do something extra to be amazing,” she said. “Even though I just needed to think about what I do in training.”
She left Winter Park and set her focus on Breckenridge, where she decided her satisfaction wouldn’t be tied to results.
“I just wanted to feel at the bottom that it was the best skiing I could have done, that I left it on the hill and I didn’t have any regrets at the finish,” she said.
If things didn’t go as planned, mere mortals placed in her shoes likely would have been tempted to lean into the various excuses at the ready. First, there was the mountain itself.
“Cimarron at Breckenridge is a seriously legitimate U16 super-G track,” Stocker said of the course once used in a 1996 men’s World Cup giant slalom. “It is fast and is full of very demanding terrain features that require strong tactics and real courage. It is the real thing. To ski well here and win is a real achievement.”
Then, there’s Crowley’s physical disadvantage. In super-G races against able-bodied competition, she uses a prosthetic arm with a hand attachment that holds her pole at the proper angle. It helps, but it’s not perfect.
“It’s just not possible for her to achieve a tuck that’s as aerodynamic as an able-bodied athlete while missing that portion of her arm,” Stocker explained, adding that in a 52-gate slalom race, where she doesn’t use the prosthetic (nor can she in any para event), there are 26 pole plants she’s deprived of an effective pole swing.
“She has a fair bit to overcome, and she does it on a regular basis.”
Crowley struggles to break down the nuts and bolts of her technical adaptations in the latter event.
“I’ve just kind of changed the way I ski,” she said of slalom. “I don’t know specifically what I do because I’ve been doing it my whole life. I’ve never really thought about it — it just happens.”
Having only started doing para events at age 12, she’s unfamiliar with any approach other than simply sending it. As Stocker put it, “in a nutshell, she really just gets on from it.”
“I’ve always skied able-bodied since I was little. I think it helps me to push myself,” Crowley said. “All my best friends are able-bodied skiers, and to keep up with them, I have to work hard.” Those benefits transcend skiing, too.
“It helps me in all aspects of life. If I can push myself this hard in a sport, hopefully I can push myself this hard in school and other things I do.”
Going into the SYNC Cup final, she drew confidence from a successful super-G on Cimarron as a U14, using it to get her mind-body connection synched up.
“That really helped me get in the right headspace as far as how I was going to take the track,” she said. She rehearsed the jump at the top of the course with speed, flying farther than she thought possible. Practicing it seemed to eliminate doubts associated with its race-setting replication. She felt confident, like her body was finally doing what her mind was telling it. Stocker said he figured something special could be in store.
“Having watched the way she skied a few of the more challenging sections, I really believed she was up for a very good result,” he said of his pupil’s practice run. “She was skiing with a great deal of confidence, aggression and courage and I hadn’t seen that in recent weeks. She really rose to the occasion.”
From the 17th starting slot, her 54.80-second split elevated her name to the top of the live timing list. Though she was technically unaware of the official result, the feeling of a nearly flawless run didn’t require the confirmation of green lights illuminating some fancy finish area screen.
“The first thing I said to my dad was, ‘that felt super fast,’ so I had a good feeling about it,” she said.
The 43rd of 48 starters, Summit’s Elodie Olsen, put up a valiant challenge, finishing just 0.01-seconds behind Crowley, with Steamboat Spring’s Caley Goforth (55.24) rounding out the podium. Behind Crowley, SSCV filled the top 10, with Anabelle Zurbay (55.47), Shay Armistead (55.48) and Lauren Hopkins (55.62) finishing fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively. Gracie Cohn, who spent much of the year injured, finished 15th in her first super-G race of the season.
“It was a really strong showing given seven of our athletes didn’t compete,” Stocker said, noting that half of his 14 were preparing for U16 nationals at Mission Ridge.
For Crowley, whom Stocker labeled “a leader amongst leaders” in his training group, the result was well-deserved vindication for sticking things out during the season’s slumps.
“Getting DNFs all the time was hard to process and come to terms with, but I think winning the race at the end really showed my work and ability to keep trying, even after being defeated that many times. It really showed how I am as a ski racer,” she said.
“It showed that all the work I do does pay off … and it’s good to keep trying.”
Next year, Crowley hopes to once again be nominated to the U.S. Paralympic Team, where she is currently a D-Team member. That would mean race opportunities in Canada, Winter Park and perhaps Europe. Her home will still be at SSCV, where she’ll concurrently compete against able-bodied skiers at the FIS level.
She’s already neck-deep in the six-days-a-week training grind with the club’s FIS group, as evidenced by squeezing in this interview before a 7 a.m. departure to Vail Mountain. Last week included two slalom and two giant slalom sessions. She expects to be on-snow in Vail and then Copper until mid-June, at which point, afternoon gym strength sessions and a rigorous dry-land regimen take over.
“I think for FIS, I don’t really have a ton of specific result goals. I just kind of am focusing on the process of getting me there,” she said, before elaborating on one such technique improvement: getting her hips forward. “It will help me attack the course, be over my outside ski and produce speed as each gate comes,” she listed off. On the para side, she thinks a NorAm or World Cup podium is a possibility.
“I think that’s an achievable goal for me and I’m going to work really hard to make that a reality this season.”
She looks up to fellow Vail para Alpine star Thomas Walsh, whom she met at an Adaptive Spirit event in fifth grade, and of course Mikaela Shiffrin — “I feel like I’ve grown up watching Mikaela,” she said — but Crowley doesn’t consider herself a role model, per se.
“It’s never been an ‘oh I’m at a disadvantage…this is why I don’t win races, because of my arm…this is why I’m not skiing well,'” she said, hearkening back to her opening quote. Her career — just like last season – has never been about making excuses, but instead, enjoying the process of daily development.
“It’s just been, ‘here’s where I am, here’s what I need to do to get better, here’s what I’m going to do to get better,'” she said. “And the results, finishes and skiing will all come together.”
For someone mature beyond their years in analyzing the ins and outs of everything from technique to sports psychology, it makes sense that thirst for improvement is what keeps the coals of her fire burning.
“I think what really excites me about skiing is there’s always something to do better,” Crowley said.
“I’m kind of a perfectionist in things I do; I always want to strive to do the best I can. Even once I’ve fixed the technical things I’m working on now, there will be more things for me to fix all throughout my life.”
For her, the grind is invigorating, not dreadful — a part of the sport and a part of the lifestyle.
“It’s just exciting that there’s always new things to learn, new places to ski, new speeds to go,” she continued.
“And every single day I get to look forward to a new course I’ve never seen before. And it’s just like a new challenge every single day that I get to go up on skis.”