The Winter Olympic Games at Sochi, Russia are fast approaching and, even as I write, the FIS is finalizing some last-minute, but logical changes to the Super Combined criteria. It’s crunch time. And while the outside world waits patiently for the Opening Ceremonies, the athletes are still trying to manage the turbulent emotions of the qualifying process.
The selection process for the US Ski Team is driven by the FIS International Ski Federation qualification criteria. The team then takes these criteria into consideration with the competition calendar, runs it by legal and then posts the USSA Olympic Selection Criteria for the world to see.
Many Olympians, me included, will tell you that qualifying for the right to compete in the Olympic Games is sometimes harder than actually competing. Competing is a mixture of hard work, talent and luck. Qualifying can be a lot more complicated.
For some athletes like Mikaela Shiffrin and Ted Ligety, selection is a mere formality. For others it is much, much more complicated. The depth of the current team’s talent, injury roster and performance all play a roll in the selection process.
I’ve competed in three Winter Olympic Games. I qualified objectively for 1988 and 1992. The Games at Lillehammer in 1994 was another story.
For the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994, I was on the cusp of not qualifying. While I was experienced, strong and had a competitive history of rising to great performances at big events, I had not achieved any qualifying results that year. Some of that had to do with equipment. We were transitioning to the first wave of the shaped skies, not a bad thing, just bad timing. Some of it was just my mediocre year on the tour.
With a final World Cup Super G scheduled in Sierra Nevada, Spain, the week before the technical team was just coming off a Europa Cup Giant Slalom race in Austria . I skied well and won. I was pleased and optimistic about the uptrend in my skiing.
After the race, I went for a nice run along a trail and stopped to do a few plyometrics on a bench. The toes of my shoes slipped and both of my shins slammed into the bench. By the time I got back to the hotel, it was evident I had scraped the front of my shins badly. It was 3 days before I could even think about putting my boots on. Every day I tried to ignore the pain.
I had one more World Cup race, one more chance to qualify for Lillehammer. The day before the last World Cup Super G, and my last chance for selection, I still couldn’t put any pressure on the front of my boots, so no training. That night the coaches asked me if they should put my name on the start list to race the next day. A subdued “Yes,” was all I could muster. We all knew that this was my last chance to qualify for the Olympic team.
The next morning, brought fog on the race hill and a delayed start. I was able to inspect and had a start number outside the top 30. Great… When the race finally started, I did not have much to say to anyone.
As start number 25 left the gate, the snow started to fall. The top of the course was extremely flat. I was not a great glider. Big fat, juicy, sticky snowflakes fell on the track. It was the kiss of death for any chance of a competitive finish. Olympic selection seemed out of reach. I was’nt heartbroken- I was furious.
Then I was in the gate. This was it and I was in go mode. I pushed out of the start, skating and poling like my life depended on it. I was determined to tear up the course and I skied with unbridled abandon. I knew I was going to be slow on the top flats, so I attacked the steeps with grit and aggression. Why not? I truly had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Crossing the finish line, I looked up at the score board and saw a 19th place finish. I was totally deflated. Today, I thought, was not the day for me to secure another Olympic berth.
All my teammates avoided me in the finish area. I had nothing to say and no more anger. Elite sports are often brutal. Results rule, period, a bitter reality for this World Champion and Olympic Silver Medalist. My last chance for an Olympic berth at the end of my competitive career seemed unlikely.
I am sharing this story so you can understand the things that happen behind the scenes. These are the stories that the press does not tell. These are the challenges athletes face and the emotions that dominate every waking hour of a bid for Olympic glory.
The selection process is prescribed by our sport’s national governing bodies. The Austrian women’s team had seven women in the top 13 places at Courcheval this season. Every team wants to put their absolute best competitors on the Olympic start list. However, not all teams have the luxury of Austria’s incredible depth. For the rest of the world, after the objective criteria, there is a discretionary clause in the selection process for most teams’ final roster.
That day in Sierra Nevada, Spain, though I had given up all hope, I skied to a 3rd fastest split time in the technical part of the course, and defying all logic, found myself on the US Winter Olympic Ski Team on my way to Lillehammer for perhaps the greatest competitive achievement of my career.
Take a moment to watch my Gold Medal run on the Kvitfjell piste in Lillehammer. As I tackled the course, you’ll hear Tim Ryan say, “Her best result this season was a nineteenth place in Super G.” He was right, but that was my day to shine!
As with every Olympic Games, there is controversy, heartbreak and joy as every country’s roster is chosen. In retrospect, competing in the Olympics wasn’t the emotional rollercoaster that qualifying was, but it’s a reality that every Olympian faces. As for me, I was determined to nail my best Olympic performance ever in Lillehammer. Standing in the gate, was I nervous? Absolutely not. It was time to win.