On again, off again: Off the U.S. Ski Team, a pair of local moguls skiers are still in on their sport
November 19, 2016
Steamboat Springs — A world-class competition moguls skiing run takes fewer than 30 seconds top to bottom, skiers bouncing between dozens of bumps while throwing and — theoretically — landing two tricks on the way down.
The whole thing is a blur — the best skiers logging 90 seconds of competition skiing per week, about 15 minutes per year.
But, this summer, Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club skier Lane Stoltzner spent not minutes, hours or even days, but weeks focused simply on the 15 feet of her run from the last mogul of one section to the base of a jump.
It was an intense focus set on one small piece of the puzzle.
"That's the way my mind works best," said Stoltzner, who started skiing competitively in Telluride.
She came to Steamboat Springs seven years ago for the Winter Sports Club's high-level moguls program and called the town home for most of the time since.
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There would be other days to work on tricks and more time to work on the actual skiing, but for three weeks in June, Stoltzner concentrated on the transition to the jump.
"I get pretty overwhelmed and anxious when I am doing it all, and I can see I need to work on this area or that area and everything else," she said. "I like to hone in on one area I really need to work on until that skill is good."
She was strictly observing coach's orders, but that's the kind of single-minded focus that's defined Stoltzner's career. Last year, as a member of the U.S. Ski Team, she logged more training time and more trips down the Park City, Utah, water ramps than any of her 19 teammates.
It didn't pay off.
All 10 skiers on the women's team were vying for what were only a handful of spots to open the season on the World Cup circuit and coaches didn't select Stoltzner for those.
Then her performances in the events where she did get starts — a couple of World Cups later in the season and the whole run of the Nor-Am Cup freestyle skiing circuit — weren't good enough, either.
She skied her best run of the winter, maybe of her career, in her last chance, placing third in March at the U.S. Freestyle Skiing National Championships in Steamboat Springs.
Even that wasn't enough, however, and she was in Park City in May when she got the message she was dreading.
"I was called in and was told unfortunately I hadn't re-qualified for the team," Stoltzner said. "I was pretty disappointed, and I walked out not knowing what to do."
That's often the end of the road for many athletes. Being replaced on the team — the virtually must-tread avenue to the World Cup, World Championships and Olympics — could be a glaring sign that none of those destinations are realistic.
Except, Stoltzner didn't quit, and she's not the only one. Eight athletes were bumped from last year's U.S. Freestyle Ski Team and many haven't given up their dreams quite yet. Stoltzner's one of two skiers training in Steamboat this season who are still clinging to hope, still looking for a way.
They're off the team, but they refuse to accept they're out of the sport.
So close, so far
Sophia Schwartz knew the call was coming.
"I wasn't skiing well," said Schwartz, a member of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club for seven years.
"Before, I would work really hard and work really focused, and I always got better," she said. "The past two years, I didn't feel like my work ethic changed, but my results did. It spun around in my head, and I wondered why I wasn't progressing."
That call qualified as a "down" in her career, but it's far from the only one.
She's blown out both knees and endured the long recoveries — the second spurring her to take off an entire year from competition.
She's also been on the precipice of the kind of success athletes dream about. She skied the best season of her life during the 2013-14 winter — her rookie season with the U.S. team — and came within an inch of earning a spot for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
She got her first career World Cup start that winter at Deer Valley, Utah, and placed seventh. She was even better about a week later, when she placed fourth at a World Cup in Lake Placid, New York, only narrowly missing out on a podium spot.
In her seven starts, she never placed worse than ninth, and it put her right in the race for one of the four spots on the U.S. Olympic Ski Team.
She ended up in a three-way tie but was third as the other two women — including Steamboat skier Eliza Outtrim — had higher world rankings.
Left to watch the Olympics from the couch in Steamboat, Schwartz was nevertheless poised to be one of the team's leaders the following year.
Except it wasn't that easy.
Schwartz was bumped up to the team's top level, the A team, and she floundered. She didn't place better than 11th at a World Cup during the 2014-15 winter.
She managed to keep her spot on the team, but if things were even worse last season. Schwartz skied only two World Cups and was a non-factor in both, placing 17th and 21st.
She spent most of the winter in mogul skiing's minor league, the Nor-Am Cup circuit, and she wasn't outstanding there either, finishing third in the season standings.
She'd struggled before but only after those injuries. There wasn't any easy explanation this time. She wasn't skiing at an elite level, and there wasn't much reason to think she'd start.
In two winters, she'd gone from hoping for a phone call that would have sent her to the Olympics to expecting a phone call that would send her off the U.S. team.
And it came. She was off the team.
It was difficult to even talk about.
"It's really awkward to give your life to something and have people be like, 'Oh you’re not on the U.S. Ski Team anymore?'" Schwartz said. "I still struggle with that."
Stuck in a competitive rut with souring results and suddenly one huge step further from the ultimate goal, the question stands out like a blinking neon sign on a dark night.
Why come back?
There's a lot to consider when picking the athletes who make up the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team.
"You take a look at the whole body of work of an athlete," said Matt Gnoza, head U.S. moguls coach. "You look at an athlete's potential, look at some of the things they've done in the past and ask, 'Is their career moving in an upward trend or has it plateaued?'"
The looming 2018 Winter Olympics are certainly a factor, but so is this season, which is anchored by the World Championships in Sierra Nevada, Spain.
Even the 2022 Olympics figured into choosing the 21 skiers on the 2016-17 team.
"We have a group that we're looking at 2022 with," Gnoza said. "Some of them, their paths of improvement and success could speed up, and they could qualify in 2018.
"We're trying to make sure we have the top youth within our team, and that does squeeze out some of the mediocre, upper level, older athletes. We have a limited number of spaces within the whole team, and we have to have a team that can produce today, two years from now and six years from now."
The team is still stocked with Steamboat skiers. Ryan Dyer's on the men's team for his second consecutive year, and Jaelin Kauf and Olivia Giaccio are both rookies.
Schwartz and Stoltzner, however, were among those squeezed out.
They weren't the only ones.
Steamboat Springs skier Jeremy Cota was left off the team after a season with a podium at Nationals and one of the U.S. mens' best World Cup performances, placing fourth in an event in Russia.
In all, eight of the 20 skiers from last winter's team aren't on this year's roster. Only two of the six 2014 Olympians remain on the squad. Vail's Heidi Kloser — another of the athletes continuing to compete — was among those left out and was the last of the four women to make those Games.
The bulk of those changes, six spots, came with the addition of a D team — that pack of young skiers Gnoza sees competing at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. Kauf, who started last season in Steamboat and turned one World Cup start into a breakout season, was one of three athletes to land higher on the roster.
Schwartz and Stoltzner haven't quibbled about whether they belong. They could have assured themselves a spot by, for instance, making a World Cup podium or by winning at Nationals.
For Schwartz, that steady recession of results since the high of 2014 stood out.
"We saw a decline," Gnoza said. "We had given her a couple of years, but at a certain point, you look for the next horse to put in the race."
In Stoltzner, the team saw a hard-working athlete, but another without big-time results.
"Lane had better than 100 percent attendance," Gnoza said. "There were a couple of optional days when she showed up.
"If I were an employer, Lane would be at the top of the list of people I would want to work for my company," Gnoza explained. "But, at this level, it's not about participation. It's about performance. We need to put athletes on the top of the podium to be successful, to fundraise, to keep our jobs. We just didn't see the results there."
Back to basics
Schwartz is well on her way to post-skiing success.
She's been logging credit hours at Dartmouth College in her offseasons and completed a degree in neuroscience with a biology minor in June.
She's a self-diagnosed biology geek and part of her is eager to dig into that field, to find a job and ski strictly for fun, not competition.
Another part of her can't help but wonder: Is she good enough to make an Olympic team?
The decision was quick for her. She moved to Park City to be with the U.S. team last year but loved Steamboat before she left and was eager to return.
"I still love training," she said, "and I still love competing."
Stoltzner thought about it longer.
She left for a pre-planned Asian vacation soon after that dreaded meeting. She tried to focus on relaxing for the first week of the trip and was marginally successful.
She gave in by the second week and played out every scenario time and time again.
She had contacted Kate Blamey, who coaches Steamboat's high-ability bumps skiers, and got the OK to return to Steamboat's squad.
Still, Stoltzner didn't make up her mind. It was either back to school, where she's a senior at Colorado College, or back to skiing, where a camp started in two days.
"I thought, 'If I'm not sure there must still be a part of me that wants to ski,'" she said. "When I'm ready to walk away from it, I'll be ready to walk away from it."
Not long after that she found herself at the water ramp on Bald Eagle Lake just outside Steamboat working tirelessly on the 15-foot transition in a 750-foot long ski run.
That break-it-down approach from Blamey is one of the things that gives both Schwartz and Stoltzner confidence.
Wednesday those two and the three other women Blamey is coaching this season worked on still more fundamentals at the base of a bone-dry Howelsen Hill. It wasn't the transition any more, but the jump landing, and the women tried to mimic the motion they'd need time and time again — balancing on exercise balls, then jumping off, poles in hand.
"I've had a million moguls coaches," Schwartz said, "and we've never done it like this before."
All of Blamey's skiers are on the verge of the U.S. Team.
Avital Shimko has been on the cusp of the team several times and is only 20. Maggie Ryan and Trudy Mickel are younger, but right there, as well.
"We have increased the number of water ramp days and the strength and conditioning sessions, and we're trying to build this high-performance team to be competition to the U.S. Ski Team," said Blamey, starting her second season in Steamboat. "All these girls are looking to make that team, and I want to offer them a year-round training program similar to what they'll be provided with when they make the team."
The first big test comes midway through next month at the U.S. Ski Team Selections event in Winter Park. That event will include the U.S. Ski Team's C-team athletes, plus all five of Steamboat's top skiers and any other athletes out there plotting a way onto the team and to the Olympics.
One World Cup start — an absolutely critical opportunity for anyone harboring 2018 Olympic dreams — will be up for grabs.
"It's definitely a lot of pressure," Stoltzner said, "but I feel ready for it."
A more sustained campaign to make the team will launch later in the season with the Nor-Am Cup circuit. Winning the season there has often been a guaranteed U.S. team ticket in the past, but it isn't on the U.S. team criteria for the 2017-18 team.
Instead, athletes will simply need to show they've improved, show they belong and hope that's enough for the U.S. Ski Team coaches.
Loving the game
It's a long shot.
Both Schwartz and Stoltzner are well aware of that.
They're running out of time to fix holes in their competition runs, out of time to progress and out of time to catch back up.
If things don't work out, they could very well accept the fate on that blinking neon sign. They'd move on with life as retired U.S. Ski Team members and with heaps of accomplishments that go with that.
They'll leave a few goals out there, however.
Stoltzner said her focus is as much on the 2019 World Championships set in Deer Valley, Utah, as they are the 2018 Olympics.
Schwartz, meanwhile, said she'd just like to feel like she's improving again. Hopefully that improvement would then lead to the Olympics.
But they do believe. They believe they can walk the path they need to to realize those dreams.
Still, those goals only partly answer the big question — the "why" of their reluctance to quit the sport. Sure, they hope they have skills yet to be tapped, but they simply still love the sport.
"Nothing's more fun than putting in the work and seeing yourself get better at skiing or standing in the gate and knowing your run is going to be so fun," Schwartz said. "I went from 15 to 21 without skiing a full, healthy season. To me, even just getting to ski feels lucky and I've definitely been lucky. I still get to go out and do what I love."
No matter how the season goes, Schwartz and Stoltzner are near the end of their careers, careers they've been building since they were toddlers learning to ski.
It takes fewer than 30 seconds, top to bottom, to finish a competition moguls run. No matter the odds, they're intent on savoring every last second.