Racing American, but also racing independently
BEAVER CREEK — Most American fans who left Redtail Stadium on Saturday left thinking about 19-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin’s gold medal in the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships slalom.
However, for a number of other American racers, the day was also about determination, overcoming insurmountable odds and true grit.
The group of American slalom skiers who raced Saturday was one punctuated both by young talent and seasoned veterans and included skiers who have battled everything from repeated injuries to brain surgery. If you were looking for a group of gritty racers, look no further.
Eagle-Vail’s slalom starlet Shiffrin won gold in a nail-biting final run. Other Americans included Ski & Snowboard Club Vail racer Paula Moltzan, 20, who was competing at her first World Championships and got her first top-30 finish. She came in 20th. Hailey Duke finished 28th, followed by Megan McJames in 38th. Resi Stiegler finished 35th in the first run before pulling out with an injured knee.
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While most American ski racers racing at the World Championships are members of the U.S. Ski Team, a handful are not. These racers usually raise their own money, hire their own coaches, construct their own training program and compete all over the world independently. Meet the mavericks of the slalom world.
Duking it out
Duke, 29, from Sun Valley, Idaho, had several occasions to celebrate during this World Championships. The slalom specialist was disappointed with her first run, but she cracked the top 30 with her second. She said she was thrilled to compete at the Championships (a major goal of hers), plus Feb. 5 marked two years of being tumor free and healthy.
Duke’s career was temporarily derailed in 2013 when doctors found she had a large tumor on her pituitary gland. She opted to undergo brain surgery, and after a successful operation and recovery, she returned to training.
In her early 20s, Duke raced for five years with the U.S. Ski Team and saw some success on the world elite level, including an appearance at the Vancouver, British Columbia, Olympics in 2010. For the past three years, she has been racing and training independently with the help of coach Erika Hogan. This season marked her first as a regular competitor on the World Cup circuit.
“I’m 100 percent on my own. I have to go out and fundraise every dollar, which is roughly $100,000 to $150,000,” she said. “I still fundraise all the way throughout the season, which is really hard. It’s one of the hardest things to stand there at a grocery story and ask people if they want to support your dream or not. The more ‘nos’ I hear, the tougher I get. But I also hear another ‘yes’ with every two ‘nos.’”
That means planning her own travel and even tuning her own skis.
“I’m down there with all the technicians, the only girl down there with a mask on,” she said. “It’s rewarding in and of itself, but absolutely tiring.”
Resi Stiegler, 29, grew up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in a ski racing family and showed great potential as a teenager on the U.S. Ski Team.
However, injuries began to stack up, and from 2007 to 2011, she had four different injuries and even more surgeries. She had a bright spot in 2012, earning her first World Cup podium at Ofterschwang, Germany, only to tear her ACL shortly afterward.
This season, after 12 years with the U.S. Ski Team, she was dropped from the national team. However, that didn’t stop Stiegler, who still does some training with the U.S. Ski Team, but raises her own funds and manages her own training and travel. Getting named to the World Championships team was a major accomplishment, although she suffered a knee injury Jan. 12 that eventually caused her to withdraw from the second round of the slalom.
“Just having (the injuries) happen again and again is pretty difficult. Coming back isn’t the difficult part. I know I can do it. It’s wanting it so badly that’s difficult,” she said after her first slalom run at Beaver Creek. “I want it so badly every single day, and it hasn’t been easy every single day. That’s the hard part, reminding yourself that you do love it, and that even if you’re not winning, that’s OK. It’s the skiing, that’s why you’re there.”
Competing at the Championships also means that Stiegler gets to race with her close friend and former teammate Sarah Schleper. Vail native Schleper is racing for Mexico and crashed midway down the run in the first slalom round.
“It’s been awhile, and it’s been a lot of fun,” said Stiegler of Schleper. “She cracks me up, and she reminds me that obviously we all want to win and do well — that’s why we’re here — but sometimes you also have to remember that it was a long journey for me to get here, and I have to appreciate the little steps and be happy to be here and competing with everyone.”
However, these athletes will tell you that for every challenge that comes with racing independently, there are upsides when it comes to personalizing training and attention from coaches.
“The positive side is that you can kind of gear your program toward you individually, and you make the program the best for yourself and manage the details the best you can,” said McJames, 27, who trains out of Park City, Utah. McJames got a last minute chance to compete in the slalom race after competing in the giant slalom on Thursday.
Duke added that she feels she’s been able to improve her skiing at a faster rate by racing solo.
“I have total freedom. I couldn’t go about picking through all my problems and fixing what I need at the rate that I have if it wasn’t all up to me,” she said, adding that her World Championships result didn’t show the improvements she’s made. “I was hoping (the slalom) would be the start of it, but I think I’m well on my way there. I just need to put it together on the game day.”
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.