Mikaela Shiffrin, other elite Vail area athletes, inspire the next generation | VailDaily.com

Mikaela Shiffrin, other elite Vail area athletes, inspire the next generation

Olympic champion is joined by Thomas Walsh, Kai Owens, Senna Leith and Josiah Middaugh at meet-and-greet event

Thomas Walsh (with microphone) welcomes the crowd at Saturday’s meet-and-greet at the Westin.
Ryan Sederquist/Vail Daily

In a locale loaded with homegrown talent, one doesn’t have to travel far to find inspiration. Vail’s current crop of elite athletes took a moment to inspire the next generation and thank the community that raised them during a meet-and-greet at the Westin Riverfront Resort and Spa on Saturday.

“Obviously, this valley has a lot of talent,” opined co-emcee Chris Anthony. Pointing to Mikaela Shiffrin, Thomas Walsh, Senna Leith, Kai Owens and Josiah Middaugh, he continued, “This is a great representation of what the valley has to offer.”

“I definitely feel a little bit like the elder statesman,” 43-year-old Josiah Middaugh said when it was his turn with the microphone.

“It’s humbling being up here on stage with all of these athletes. You see these little kids that have some talent and have some work ethic and they put it together and they come out of this small community — it’s pretty amazing this place that we live in.”

Anthony, piggy-backing off of the 2015 Xterra World Champion’s words, turned to introduce the Olympic mogul skier sitting to his left.

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Kai Owens talks to the crowd Saturday at the Westin.
Ryan Sederquist/Vail Daily

“Being in the valley for as long as I have, again, you get to see all these little kids, right? She was one of the little kids,” the award-winning documentary producer said of Kai Owens.

“When I saw in the Vail Daily that you had a chance at being an Olympian, my heart reached out to you. It is such an amazing accomplishment.”

Owens was in crutches, though she said afterward that her rehab and training have been coming along.

Kai Owens chats with fans Saturday at the Westin.
Ryan Sederquist/Vail Daily

“She’s just recently had to visit one our great doctors at the Steadman Clinic, so she’s part of that club as well which is only going to make you grow so much stronger,” Anthony said. “Adversity makes us so much stronger.”

From left, Mikaela Shiffrin, Thomas Walsh, Josiah Middaugh, Kai Owens and Senna Leith were honored at the Westin on Saturday.
Ryan Sederquist/Vail Daily

The headliner, Shiffrin, endured a season with the highest of highs — culminating in a dominant World Cup Final and fourth career overall globe — and the lowest of the lows. Considering the events of the last few years, it’s hard to imagine a better spokesperson for overcoming adversity and maturing into a stronger athlete.

“I just want to take this moment to say thank you to all of you — this whole community — for the support that you consistently give all of us athletes,” Shiffrin said.

“This community is a special one. It’s something I’ve felt since I was young, but especially over the last couple of years as some of the difficult, challenging times that my family has personally experienced — the way that this community came up and supported us and lifted us when we couldn’t really do it for ourselves. It’s a hallmark of this area and the people who live here. Even those who don’t, but come to visit — it’s contagious and it’s special.”

Aleksander Aamodt Kilde (left) watches as Mikaela Shiffrin is introduced.
Ryan Sederquist/Vail Daily

She paused to turn at the kids in the audience.

“Whatever your dreams are, set them, follow them, love them,” she softly proclaimed.

With 74 World Cup wins to her name, the 27-year-old generational athlete was whisked away to a backdrop where a team of PR folks proceeded to systematically usher young and old through a photo line for the next 45 minutes. Shiffrin played along with the random 50-year-old goofball making a funny face during his turn, and she had words for the awestruck and speechless 10-year-old Buddy Werner athlete. She was the class act, hometown hero for every person who waited in line to shuffle into her Olympic presence.

Meanwhile, the other half of skiing’s power couple, 2020 World Cup overall champion and two-time Olympic medalist Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, had to fend for himself in the mingling crowd as more than a few groups of fans tried to make memorable small talk with the Norwegian superstar.

Aleksander Aamodt Kilde poses with a fan Saturday at the Westin.
Ryan Sederquist/Vail Daily

“So, are you skiing at Vail tomorrow for the last day?” asked one woman.

“No, no! Skiing season is over,” the Alpine racer laughed, his eyebrows raised.

Outside, Middaugh and his new running partner — “short runs only,” according to the local endurance stalwart — a mini-aussie, got some sunshine on the Westin Riverfront patio.

Middaugh said his Xterra schedule will be “a little thin this year,” but he’s targeting this summer’s Beaver Creek race, which, for the first time, will be the U.S. championships. The Ultimate Mountain Challenge (a discontinued Mountain Games event) legend is also plotting to race one or two events at this year’s GoPro Mountain Games in June.

“I’m trying to find a balance, trying to figure out if I’m retired or not,” he joked.

“Some days I’m retired, some days I’m not. I still like pushing myself and doing hard workouts.”

Surrounded by star power, only one individual had an Olympic medal around his neck on Saturday afternoon. Thomas Walsh, who claimed a silver medal in the giant slalom at the Beijing Paralympics in March, said he arrived home from China and went right to the local hill.

“The time change was so messed up, so I went out for four or five runs,” he said. “It was actually really humbling.”

Walsh has been busy catching up with family and friends, talking to the media and arranging sponsors to support his upcoming season. This summer, in addition to working a bit at the golf course, he’ll be busy training at the Westin and traveling to various on-snow camps. He’ll be in Mammoth for a camp on May 6.

“We’re back at it,” he said with energy. He admitted to holding onto some residual fatigue from the recently finished season, but the opportunity to get back to the drawing board has renewed his excitement.

“I’m invigorated by the fact that I know now what I need to improve on,” he said.

“Now is kind of deconstruction time — tear the ski apart, tear the fundamentals apart, build a better base — and I have four years to build that.”

Looking determined and with his trademark stately tone, Walsh said he is committed to striving diligently — and remaining grateful for his lot in life — for four more years.

“I’m happy with the performance and I’m proud of it and I know I can do better and that’s why I’m working so hard,” he said.

Back home, he hopes to take the paddle board out once or twice, too.

“It’s a weird thing because I don’t like being in the water, so I guess that’s why I got the paddle board!” he said of his hobby.

“Keeps me outside. It gives me a lot to think about on my own, away from the chaos, away from the ski slopes.”

Two girls named Nora and Elisabeth, patiently waiting to speak to their hero, proceeded to get their Buddy Werner uniforms out to be signed.

“Who is your favorite?” your loyal correspondent asked.

“Thomas and Mikaela,” one responded.


There was a pause and a smile.

“He’s got the medal.”

Maybe someday she will, too.

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