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Skiing

For some ski racers, Killington’s World Cup event is about a lot more than making the podium

Paula Moltzan is putting her college career at Vermont on hold to compete for the US ski team.
Paula Moltzan is putting her college career at Vermont on hold to compete for the US ski team.dustin satloff/Getty Images

Skiing’s World Cup returns to Killington, Vt., this weekend, and US star Mikaela Shiffrin could add to her 61 World Cup victories, including her three slalom wins at Killington.

Beyond the podium, however, another story unfolds on Killington’s Superstar race trail, and it is one of emerging talent.

When Killington started hosting Thanksgiving weekend women’s ski races in 2016, it was a boon for fans who had not seen World Cup ski racing in New England since 1991. They came out in force, topping 30,000 over the weekend of racing and eclipsing attendance at any other North American World Cup event. Racing on home turf was also a coup for Americans, who typically slog it out anonymously at faraway resorts in Europe on the grueling “White Circus.”

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The biggest beneficiaries are not stars such as Shiffrin, but unheralded athletes who use Killington as a springboard to the circus.

Last year, the University of Vermont’s Paula Moltzan earned her start in the Killington slalom by winning a November time trial in Colorado. Moltzan, then a full-time student, had spent the summer working as a river guide, and started skiing just five days before the time trial.

Moltzan, 25, was once a young rising star on the US ski team, and a world junior slalom champion in 2015. When she was cut from the national team in the spring of 2016, she switched gears and enrolled at Vermont, where the challenge of school and the team atmosphere of NCAA racing suited her.

In earlier eras, that would have been the end of her World Cup and Olympic aspirations. The path from the NCAA to the World Cup, while well-traveled by men, has been less common among women, and uncharted for American women.

Killington is helping to change that. Last year, seven NCAA athletes from four nations and four colleges competed at Killington, and most are now World Cup regulars.

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This year, when Moltzan kicks out of the gate in both the slalom and giant slalom, she does so as a full-time member of the US ski team, with prep that included “about 10 times more days on snow than last year,” she laughs. With her senior year of college on hold, she is fully dedicated to World Cup racing, and it all started on Superstar.

Moltzan’s 17th-place finish at Killington earned her a start in the December World Cups in Europe, where she continued to move up the rankings and eventually earned a spot on the US World Championships team. She did this all while toggling among the World Cup, the NCAA circuit, and full-time school. Last spring, based on her world rank, Moltzan was named to the US ski team’s B Team.

Moltzan is not alone in capitalizing on the unique opportunity at Killington, which opens a door that is nearly impenetrable once the season gets rolling overseas. In the weeks before the Killington races, top athletes are invited to compete in time trials for the final World Cup spots, including the extra one granted to the host country.

One of those new faces this year is the University of Denver’s Storm Klomhaus, 21, who made her World Cup debut in Soelden, Austria, in October. Like Moltzan, Klomhaus was once on the US team’s traditional development path. After faltering at age 17, she enrolled at Denver and thrived in the college racing atmosphere. She then endured two full years of injuries, during which she plowed through her biochemistry major coursework.

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“It kept me so busy, I don’t know how I would have survived without that distraction,” Klomhaus said.

Throughout, she kept the skiing faith, bolstered by seeing her Denver teammates advance in the international rankings. She was further motivated by sophomore Katie Hensien, who lives across the hall and is in her second year of racing for both the US and Denver.

Four Denver women, including Hensien in slalom and Klomhaus in GS, will be racing in Killington. As will skiers from the University of Colorado, University of Utah, Middlebury, Vermont, and Dartmouth.

Klomhaus can thank Moltzan for blazing a trail. Whereas Moltzan had to fund and plan all her own training for her unanticipated World Cup campaign last season, Klomhaus was invited to join US ski team training events leading into this season.

“There’s been a lot of positive change,” Moltzan said. “They’ve closed the funding gap and more athletes like Storm can be integrated.”

While Shiffrin and New Zealand teen sensation Alice Robinson — the giant slalom winner in Soelden — found near-immediate World Cup success, most athletes take years to work up the ranks. The past 10 years, the average age of female athletes on the podium has bounced around from 24–27. Shiffrin won Olympic slalom gold in 2014 at age 18, but four years later, the title went to 32-year-old Swede Frida Hansdotter, who won her first World Cup race at 28.

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While some female skiers can become competitive by age 18, others often need plenty of runway to hit their athletic primes.

By offering early-season starting spots at a World Cup event to emerging athletes, Killington gives younger athletes the valuable experience of competing at the highest level.

“I want to see the skiers that are performing, and able to step up,” said Jesse Hunt, the US ski team’s Alpine director. “I want to see them get opportunities.

“More than anything, getting athletes in front of that crowd and in an environment where there’s all that excitement, but they are still under pressure to perform, is what that first World Cup opportunity presents.”

Nina O’Brien made her World Cup debut at Killington in 2016 and scored her first World Cup points on the same hill two years later. AJ Hurt, 18, will be back for her third appearance at Killington, as will Hensien.

Kicking out of the gate the first time is scary, but it gets easier every time, which is why a start at Killington can be as good as gold.

Killington Cup at a glance

When: Saturday (giant slalom) and Sunday (slalom)

Time: First run, 9:45 a.m.; second run, 1 p.m.

Admission: Free

Television: NBCSN (Saturday, 12:30), NBC (Sunday, 12:30 p.m.)

Notable: Free concerts will feature DJ Logic (Saturday after first runs) and Grace Potter (Saturday after second runs) and Twiddle (Sunday after first runs) . . . World Cup overall champion Mikaela Shiffrin is the three-time defending champion in slalom at Killington.

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