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Tess Weaver Strokes | Photo: Multiple Photographers | February 11, 2014
Meet 10 piping-hot Aspen skiers and snowboarders, three of which are representing Team USA at Sochi.
Elite athletes thrive on inspiration, so it’s no surprise that a community like Aspen produces so many Olympians—a tradition that began when Dick Durrance (who later became the first general manager of the Aspen Skiing Company), skied in the 1936 Winter Olympic Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, and helped Aspen plant its flag as a ski destination. Like most Aspen Olympians—think Bill Marolt, Andy Mill, Monique Pelletier and Chris Klug—Durrance trained with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, and the dozen skiers and snowboarders that hoped to qualify for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, all hail from the same renowned association. The valley’s oldest and largest youth nonprofit certainly helps nurture young athletes into world-class threats on the hill, but many of these talents also credit the community for supporting those who strive for excellence. After all, it takes a village.
Discipline: Cross-Country Skiing
2014 Olympic USA Team Member
Simi Hamilton says the Sochi cross-country sprint course, which sits at 5,000 feet elevation, is one of the hardest he’s seen, but the Aspenite who grew up training at 7,900 feet has acclimatization on his side. One of the fastest sprinters in the country, the Aspen local will be a two-time Olympian when he competes this winter in Russia. At the 2010 Vancouver Games, Hamilton placed 29th overall, and he’s been scoring points on the World Cup ever since.
Hamilton prefers the discipline of skate sprinting, with races averaging three minutes long. “It’s very fast-paced and it’s tactical—like a chess game,” says Hamilton, who would like to ski in the final skate-sprint race in Sochi, featuring the top six skiers who’ve advanced. “It takes a lot to get to that level,” he admits, “but if my training goes well and I stay focused, I have a good shot.” Additionally, Hamilton and his partner, Andy Newell, will contend for a medal in the team sprint event.
You might say that Hamilton has come full circle. He grew up in a skiing family; his grandfather was the former president of the Aspen Skiing Company, and his mother coached for the AVSC Nordic program. He credits supportive teachers at Aspen High School for encouraging him to work hard in school, but also to take the opportunity to travel and race.
“The community is really invested in how I’m doing,” Hamilton says. “It’s the best hometown anyone could ask for.”
Discipline: Halfpipe Skiing
2014 Olympic USA Team Member
When Torin Yater-Wallace was an Aspen High School freshman, he beat out a field of seasoned veterans to become the youngest male medalist ever at Winter X Games. He left the classroom and has been taking high school courses online ever since, skiing most days during the winter and traveling the world as one of the sport’s biggest names. Along the way, he’s amassed mainstream sponsors like Target, P&G and Visa. He recently became Kellogg’s first (and only) sponsored freeskier.
Having won the Olympic test event in Sochi last season, Yater-Wallace entered this qualifying season as an Olympic medal contender, and will go on to compete in Sochi, but has suffered a couple of setbacks. Twice last December, he was hospitalized for broken ribs and a collapsed lung. Still, says Yater-Wallace, who skied with AVSC from ages 7 to 14, “[The club] made me the skier I am today. I’d never be at this level without the awesome start I was lucky enough to have. It started with learning the basics, skiing moguls, learning my first 360… AVSC was the foundation.”
Naturally, Yater-Wallace adds, “When I leave, I miss everything about Aspen. It’s a little paradise ski town in the middle of the mountains. I’m pretty lucky to have been raised in such a nice community.”
Discipline: Cross-Country Skiing
2014 Olympic USA Team Member
Noah Hoffman’s goal for the Winter Olympics in Sochi used to be a top 10 finish, but his recent World Cup results have led him to believe he can do even better. However, shares Hoffman, his main goal is to use Sochi as a building block to enter the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea as a favorite.
“Every international race is another opportunity to improve, learn, [and] to gain experience and move toward my goals,” says Hoffman, who entered his third season on the World Cup circuit as the nation’s top-ranked distance skier.
A distance specialist, Hoffman tends to perform best in skate races 10K or longer, but he prides himself on being equally proficient in both skate and classic skiing. Despite dabbling in other endurance sports, like cycling and running, the goal-oriented athlete was drawn to Nordic skiing because he saw a tangible return on his training investment.
“Cross-country skiing draws a certain type of person who is motivated and willing to work hard to get results,” explains Hoffman, a member of the U.S. Ski Team since 2008, but always snowbound.
Raised riding his bike to school in the morning with his family, Hoffman was in his senior year of high school when he would take free first and second periods to do Bowl laps before class, then train on cross-country trails and bike home. That active Aspen lifestyle paid off.
Discipline: Slopestyle Snowboarding
Jordie Karlinski has stood on the podium at events in the United States, New Zealand and Europe, and she’s off to a great start this season. In December, she made it to finals at the Dew Tour at Breckenridge. Although she didn’t end up qualifying for this year’s Olympic team, Karlinski says “I told myself this season to have no regrets. The last few qualifying events in Mammoth I rode the best I have yet, and I got unlucky. I’m going to continue to push myself to be the best rider I can be, and go for South Korea in 2018.”
The Snowmass resident joined AVSC when she was just 7 years old, trailing her older brother and his friends around the mountain. A year later, Karlinski started racing, riding halfpipe and practicing jumps. And when she won an X Games qualifier in California at 15, scoring an invite to the X Games for boardercross, she realized she could make a career out of snowboarding. She joined the U.S. Snowboard Team when she was 17 and is focused on slopestyle.
“Hitting jumps is a lot more fun than riding a pipe,” Karlinski explains. “When you go to contests, every course is different. You can be really unique and creative.”
Karlinski mainly rides Buttermilk and Snowmass, but lately she’s grown an affinity for Highlands. “It’s hard to leave,” says Karlinski, who hikes, camps, fly-fishes, road bikes and golfs in the summer and fall. “Traveling so much makes me realize how awesome Aspen is. This valley is pretty special.”
Discipline: Halfpipe Skiing
The United States will bring four halfpipe skiers to Sochi for the discipline’s Olympic debut—and Aspen’s Alex Ferreira aimed to be one of them.
“As a kid growing up in Aspen, my goal was always to be in X Games,” says Ferreira. “During the event, we’d all get out of school every day and go watch. It was our love. Now, the goal has changed to the Olympics. I want to get on top of the podium and represent America well.”
Ferreira knows he was lucky to grow up in Aspen, where he skied five days a week and teachers let him turn in assignments a bit late. And he’s quick to credit the quality coaches at AVSC. And though Ferreira started competing in moguls, he eventually migrated to the terrain park and the halfpipe. “We were so young,” Ferreira shares. “We could try anything. We were learning so rapidly—we’d learn a new trick every day.” Now, the student is the teacher, as Ferreira is involved with AVSC as a guest coach.
And he loves the local terrain. Of Aspen Snowmass resorts, Ferreira favors Buttermilk. “It’s just right there, and the park is so long and so good. There’s a certain vibe to Buttermilk—it’s always sunny.” It looks like so are his prospects.
Discipline: Slopestyle Skiing
Growing up skiing with AVSC, Meg Olenick was the only girl in her ski group, which, she says, pushed her to keep up and build confidence in her own skiing ability. She followed her older brothers, including two-time X Games medalist Peter Olenick, around the mountain, and when they started skiing in the terrain park, so did she. Persistence paid off—Meg perfected her rail skills, pushed herself to learn difficult tricks, and became one of the top female slopestyle skiers in the world.
“I decide which tricks I am going to do in my run and how I am going to execute them,” says Olenick of her sport. “There aren’t many sports out there with the same type of freedom.” It’s also one that’s injury-plagued. Meg was hit with season-ending knee injuries in 2011 and 2012, but each time, she worked hard to return to competing—always with her eyes focused on the road to the Olympics. And although she won’t be competing in Sochi, she’s excited to watch her sport’s debut at the games this year.
“So many of us have worked hard to see our sports [slopestyle and halfpipe skiing] get to this level,” she says. “It’s going to be a big day for freeskiers.”
Discipline: Alpine Skiing
As a kid, Alice McKennis didn’t like to turn much. Growing up on a ranch near New Castle, she would straight-line as many runs as she could at nearby Sunlight Mountain. “When I was young, I loved going fast and nothing has changed,” she says. “The freedom and adrenaline I get from racing downhill is certainly an addiction.”
But competing in skiing’s fastest event has its consequences. Two years ago, McKennis broke her left tibia plateau, which required a plate and five screws. Last March, while racing in Germany, she crashed and shattered her right tibia into 30 pieces. Another plate and 11 screws later, she says she’s feeling good.
“Because of my injuries and the setbacks they have caused, I have had to become a much tougher and stronger individual,” she says. “I know that I will be able to battle through any challenges ahead—I have learned to keep things in perspective and look for the positives in any situation.”
McKennis’ goals for the season haven’t changed since the injury. She says they’ll just take more work and perseverance to attain. “I still want to be a consistent top-five downhill racer on the World Cup. The ultimate goal would be to win an [Olympic] medal.” She’s definitely got the mettle for it.
Discipline: Alpine Skiing
Katie Ryan has been clocked in at skiing 85 miles per hour—but she’s gone faster. Her alpine racing specialty? Super G. After all, the 21-year-old skier was Junior National Champion in the event during her senior year at Aspen High School.
“When I realized I was in the mix with the best kids in the country, I knew this is what I want to do,” Ryan says. “I want to see how good I can be.”
Currently on the Europa Cup speed team, she’s been training for speed events (super G and downhill) for 10 years with AVSC. Ryan loves the one-run, all-or-nothing format of both disciplines. “It’s a sprint to the finish,” she offers. “There are no mental games. It’s just about going fast.”
Of course, there’s more to it. Ryan’s strong workouts play a huge factor in her success. “I hate to be outworked,” admits Ryan, who has overcome five surgeries (on her elbow, her ankle and her knee) in the last three years. Overcoming injury has taught her to set goals with strict timelines and also to stay focused.
Ryan’s first taste of World Cup racing came when she competed last December in the FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup in Lake Louise and placed in the top 55. “I’m building confidence,” she shares, “and know what I need to do to race with the best girls in the world.”
Discipline: Halfpipe Snowboarding
Decorated snowboarder and 2006 Olympic silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler first started competing at local contests as a member of AVSC when she was 15. Now, 17 years later, she went through her fourth qualifying experience for the Olympics in Sochi, but this time was, unfortunately, not a go.
“I’ve had the best- and worst-case scenarios, but this one is different, coming back from my accident,” says Bleiler, who, in June 2012, overrated a double backflip on a trampoline. When her knee made contact with her face, it smashed her eye socket, broke her nose and gave her a concussion. Her eye socket required surgery, and after months of vision exercises and battling headaches and double vision, Bleiler started competing again.
In August 2013, at the New Zealand Winter Games, she found herself back on the podium—although her plans call for more. “If I can get my harder tricks back,” she says, “I’ll be exactly where I want to be.”
Growing up in Aspen, Bleiler developed a deep connection to her natural surroundings. “I appreciate the focus our community has on educating kids about the environment,” says one of snowboarding’s most recognized spokespeople who works with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and Protect Our Winters.
“Snowboarding is my vehicle to push myself physically and mentally,” Bleiler shares of the sport she loves. “The lessons I learn on the mountain translate to everyday life. That’s why I love it. Every day I get to push myself, learn, grow and try to be the very best version of myself.”
Discipline: Nordic Combined
For Michael Ward, it all began when his father, Craig Ward, took him to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. There, the then 10-year-old watched ski jumpers soar through the air; soon, he was sold on the Nordic combined—an event that combines ski jumping and cross-country skiing.
To compete at an elite level in cross-country skiing, a sport that demands the highest aerobic output, athletes must be extremely fit and willing to work hard, while ski jumpers must boast mental endurance, notes Michael, adding, “Mentally, you have to be strong and focused.”
Focus is something all Wards know well. An Olympic cross-country skier back in 1980, Craig started a Nordic combined program at AVSC in 2003, and Michael began training, with the goal of becoming an Olympian, just like his father. The younger Ward began training on a 5-meter jump near the AVSC clubhouse. Soon, he was jumping the 60-meter hill in Steamboat Springs, where he lived for five years to train at the country’s top facility. Michael now lives in Park City, where he trains with the U.S. Ski Team—he hoped to secure one of five spots on the Nordic combined Olympic team. “I have been really working hard to improve but unfortunately it wasn’t enough to qualify for the Olympics. However, this isn’t the end. I still have other competitions I am looking forward to. I am now looking to the future at [the] 2015 World Championships in Falun, Sweden, and even to the Olympics in 2018,” explains Michael.