VMS graduate to represent India at Games | VailDaily.com

VMS graduate to represent India at Games

Daily Staff Report
Special to the Daily Neha Ahuja takes a gate during a giant slalom race in Japan earlier this season.

Neha Ahuja is the first Indian woman to qualify for the Winter OlympicsBy Shauna FarnellDaily Sports Writer

VAIL – Every athlete who has qualified for the Olympics has worked very hard to see that dream come to fruition. But Neha Ahuja, who graduated from Vail Mountain School five years ago and skied with Ski Club Vail, had to work harder than most.”Hers is a total Cinderella story,” said Edwards resident Jeannine Hallenback, who was Ahuja’s host mother during Ahuja’s time in Colorado. “The odds of her getting to the Olympics were like zero to none.”Ahuja is the first Indian women to qualify for the Winter Olympics, which begin Feb. 10 in and around Torino, Italy. Ahuja qualified to compete in women’s giant slalom last winter, and just last weekend qualified for the Olympic slalom event.

What? you say. India has skiers in the Olympics? Hallenbeck equates it to something akin to the Jamaican bobsled team. Nonetheless, the 24-year-old from New Delhi, who went on to ski and graduate from the University of Colorado in Boulder, will join three others to complete India’s largest Winter Olympic contingent in history (the “team” has had one athlete compete since its first appearance in the Winter Games in 1998).Ahuja came to Vail as an exchange student for her final couple of years of high school, but learned to ski in Kashmir at the base of the Himalayas around the age of 13. The trips down the mountain were fundamentally infrequent for Ahuja, since she had to hike up the mountain every time she skied down. “She didn’t have near the technique or the ability that the kids who grew up here had,” Hallenback said of Ahuja’s experience with Ski Club Vail. “In the Himalayas, she walked up the mountains. There aren’t any chair lifts. She had a lot of hurdles to overcome.”

When Ahuja first came to live with Hallenback’s family the summer before her senior year at Vail Mountain School, she was quiet and reserved, but interested in refining the ski ability she learned from her father. She quickly became a part of the family, and by the time she went on to ski for CU, she had a sponsorship from Sony Corporation’s Joe Morita, and was working harder than ever at becoming a competitive racer.”It was her life,” said Hallenback, who views Ahuja as another daughter and corresponds with her on a weekly basis. “She would have to get up at like four in the morning when she was going to school in Boulder, ski at Eldora, come back and go to class, then she had two jobs. She was president of the International club and a resident advisor in the dorm. She was unbelievably shy when she first came to us. When she came here, she was a little girl. When she left, she was a woman and an Olympic hopeful.”Ahuja had hoped to qualify for the 2002 Winter Games, but damaged her knee before a key qualifying event in Steamboat Springs; an injury that sidelined her from the sport for two years.”This has been her whole life dream, and her father’s,” Hallenback said. “It’s an incredible story.”

Ahuja went on to train and work in Japan, became the best Indian racer at the Asian Games, and has trained in Austria with World Cup-renowned coaches.In India, she has become a celebrity.”It is a dream come true to compete at the Winter Olympics,” Ahuja said in an article on http://www.newkerala.com. “It doesn’t get better than this.”Sports Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext.14632, or sfarnell@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado

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