Missing the Olympics left two Steamboat ski jumpers wondering what’s next
Sankey plans to take a year off; Malacinski focuses on finding joy
Sports fans around the world were glued to their televisions in January, watching the best athletes in the world compete at the Olympics. While stories of success permeated newspapers, magazines and televisions everywhere, many of the athletes who missed out on the Olympics were left with feelings of failure and a dwindling sense of direction.
A pair of Steamboat Springs athletes were in that unfortunate position of coming close, but not making the cut for the Olympics team. For athletes who have given up traditional school and the ability to be a normal young adult while dedicating years of their life to a sport, missing their ultimate goal was devastating.
“It was detrimental to my mental health,” said Steamboat-raised Nordic combined skier Niklas Malacinski. “The 2022 Olympics were my dream since I was 10 or 12 … It was almost like a loss of purpose. That’s what my whole career was focused on up until then.”
Logan Sankey, a ski jumper from Steamboat Springs, had to reevaluate her whole season and plans after learning she wouldn’t be going to Beijing.
“For me, once I didn’t make it and once the Olympics happened, it was like, ‘Wait, now what?’” Sankey said. “There’s still two months of the season left, but that was my main goal.”
Both Sankey, 23, and Malacinski, 18, were just shy of the Olympic teams, suffering through a series of events that eventually led to them learning they’d have to wait until 2026 for another chance to achieve their Olympic dreams.
At the U.S. Olympic Trials in Lake Placid in December, fellow U.S. National Team member Anna Hoffman won over Sankey by half a point to earn an automatic Olympic bid.
However, the women’s ski jumping team didn’t have an Olympic quota spot, which is earned through performing well at high level competitions such as the World Cup. Sankey was consistently a top finisher among American women, doing everything she could to earn her team a spot at the Games.
When the Olympic qualifying period ended, the Americans were still short. However, after quotas were reallocated and multiple countries turned them down, Hoffman got the call that she would indeed be going to the Olympics.
Sankey knew the whole time that if a spot came available it would go to Hoffman, but that didn’t make it any easier for her.
“There’s always going to be people who get the thing, or the win, or the prize or the team, and people who don’t. No matter what, it’s always going to be hard for the people who don’t make it,” Sankey said. “People are always going to be sad and have trouble dealing with the fact they didn’t make it in sports or they didn’t make their goal. I think it’s important to remember those challenges aren’t going to go away, but the way we prepare athletes to deal with those challenges is the thing we have control over.”
Malacinski also had a tough winter. He started his season on the World Cup circuit, but it didn’t go as well as he’d hoped.
As his teammates earned World Cup points, Malacinski slipped further back in the running for the Olympic team. He stepped back onto the Continental Cup, where he rapidly made up the difference.
According to Malacinski, he was only five points away from a potential Olympic spot, but the last event in the Olympic qualifying period was canceled.
So, Malacinski will never know if he would have closed the gap and been named to the team. Still, he was disappointed and it affected his performances the rest of the winter.
“That was a huge let down for me. It really messed with my performance all the way up until Junior Worlds,” said Malacinski. “My jumping and skiing performances haven’t quite recovered from that.”
Malacinski recently finished seventh at Junior Worlds, showing he is one of the best Nordic combined athletes his age. His age just happens to be five to 10 years younger than most of the best athletes right now.
Billy Demong, executive director of USA Nordic, the United States governing body for ski jumping and Nordic combined, reached out to all the athletes who were vying for a spot and missed out.
Demong tried to reassure them that they had done all the right things and this is just one of many opportunities, especially for athletes as young as Malacinski.
“It’s a big deal, right, but it’s trying to make sure that a young athlete like Niklas, they start to think beyond one team, one time,” Demong said.
Adjusting goals, finding joy, moving on
As time passed and the Olympics came and went, both athletes discovered there was at least one positive that came out of missing the Games.
“I’ve found myself being able to move on more and more,” Malacinski said. “(I’m) just doing what I love and taking a step back from all the results and the logistics of making teams and stuff, and trying to enjoy what I do and remembering why I do what I do.”
Sankey was, in a way, forced to do the same thing. In the spring, she and other USA Nordic athletes created results-based goals, process goals and life goals. Suddenly, her biggest results-based goal was off the table.
“I definitely had to take some time to sit down with myself and figure out what I wanted now and what my new goals were,” Sankey said. “That process took a little while. I said, ‘You know what? I’m just going to have fun with these competitions now that the stress of the Olympics and Olympic qualifying is over. I can just do the sport for the sake of the sport itself.’”
Since then, Sankey has had great finishes, including a recent Continental Cup victory in Park City, Utah.
USA Nordic encourages athletes to set a variety of goals, but as athletes, they are ultimately seeking results, so results-based goals hold a lot of weight.
Demong said USA Nordic provides a sports psychologist for athletes, who helps them deal with pressure and stress in competition, evaluate progress and more. That psychologist occasionally recommends other professionals depending on an athlete’s needs.
Sankey said she sees a therapist on top of a sports psychologist, which helps put her athletic career in perspective and reminds her that being a ski jumper is just a fraction of who she is as a person.
Mired by frustration while mulling over goals, Sankey has decided to take a year off from ski jumping next winter.
She’ll spend the next year finishing her engineering degree at Dartmouth College on campus in Hanover, New Hampshire. She’s looking forward to taking classes with labs and projects in person and getting at least a year of a traditional college experience.
“I’m planning on making the decision at the end of that,” Sankey said. “After I’ve had some space to step back for a second, do some other things, get some more perspective and decide whether or not I’m ready to move on and become a real life person or whether I still have some unfinished business in ski jumping and if I’m being pulled back to the sport.”
DeMong hopes to see Sankey on a ski jumping hill again and that Malacinski can use this experience to become a stronger competitor.
“I absolutely believe both Logan and Niklas, should they decide to continue for another Games, that they have the potential to be some of the best athletes in the world,” Demong said.
To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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Steamboat Springs snowboarders Taylor Gold and Cody Winters were nominated to U.S. Snowboard teams on Friday, May 13, according to U.S. Ski & Snowboard.