TELLURIDE – Just over six weeks remain until the Olympic torch arrives in Sochi, Russia, heralding the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics and carrying with it the aspirations of thousands of athletes from around the world.
The countdown to this winter’s Olympic Games is especially meaningful for four Telluride athletes, who are in striking distance of securing coveted invitations to compete at the pinnacle of the world’s winter sports competition. Mogulists Joe Discoe and Keaton McCargo, snowboarder Hagen Kearney, and freeskier Gus Kenworthy have all earned spots on the U.S. Ski or Snowboard Team this year, thus embarking upon a fast-paced few weeks of high-level competitions that could pave the way to Olympic Team berths.
Yet despite the hype surrounding the weeks leading up to the Winter Olympics, it’s business as usual for Telluride’s elite athletes, who each say they are tackling the competitive road ahead with the same goals in mind as they would in a non-Olympic winter. That is, to reach their own personal bests at every opportunity.
“You go to every single event thinking the same thing – that is, you want to win,” explains Discoe, who is a member of the U.S. Ski Team’s Freestyle Moguls B team and has been competing at the World Cup level since 2010. “So there hasn’t been a big change in how I’ve prepared for this year, even with it being an Olympic year, because I’m pushing myself to be the best and to try to work harder every season… although it does add a little more pressure.”
Discoe’s pre-Olympics competitive schedule ramps up the first week in January with a World Cup event in Calgary, Canada. He has already burst onto the competitive stage with gusto this ski season, taking 11th place at last week’s World Cup event in Finland. That’s his best-ever start to the competitive season, he says, and comes on the heels of a succession of significant finishes last season – among them, taking his first career World Cup podium finish at Inawashiro, Japan, and going on to earn gold in dual moguls at the 2013 U.S. Championships.
Kearney, who is a member of the U.S. Snowboardcross team and has been competing in World Cup events for the past two seasons, also says that he plans to tackle each coming race as its own distinct event, and not necessarily as a precursor to a potential Olympics start. “At the end of the day, all of these competitions are potential Olympics qualifiers. So that’s good to know. But once I’m in the starting gate, all of that goes out the window,” he says, adding that he expects the competitive pressure to build as the calendar gets closer to February 7, the first day of the 2014 Olympics.
Kearney says he is entering this season with more confidence than in years past thanks to the momentum he is carrying from last season, which culminated in a top-ten finish at the season finale World Cup in Spain. He also celebrated a first-ever World Cup SBX team win last winter as well.
Newer to the professional circuit is Telluride teenager McCargo, who made it onto the U.S. Ski Team’s radar last season with her two NorAm Cup wins and three NorAm podium finishes (the NorAm Cup tour is one competitive level below World Cup.) She finished last winter on a high note, winning both single moguls and dual moguls at the FIS Junior World Championships in Valmalenco, Italy.
As a member of the U.S. Ski Team’s Freestyle Moguls C Team, McCargo says her sights are set on earning a starting spot at upcoming World Cup events. She’ll have that chance this weekend, as she competes at the U.S. Selection Event in Winter Park. The event is used to qualify skiers to start in NorAm competitions and U.S. World Cups.
McCargo says she’s feeling confident, despite the added stress of being continually reminded that this winter marks an Olympic year. “I want to think I’m trying hard and doing my best at tackling this season like any other season,” she explains. “Now I’m in a good position to get on the World Cup, so that is my goal for now.”
Kenworthy, who is on the Freeskiing Halfpipe and Slopestyle Pro Team, will have his shot at winning an Olympic berth in coming weeks as well, as he embarks upon a fast and furious schedule of high-level freeskiing events. Four Olympic qualifying events remain before the U.S. Olympic freeskiing team will be named, with Kenworthy slated to start at one of those this weekend in Copper Mountain. He’s hoping to carry some momentum into this winter from his successful 2012-13 season, in which he won a Euro X Games bronze medal, won slopestyle at the SFP World Championships, and was ranked the top skier within the Association of Freesking Professionals for the third consecutive year.
While earning a U.S. Olympic Team berth will prove challenging for all of these athletes, requiring consistently spectacular results throughout the next five weeks of competition, the fact remains that having four athletes in the running for a Winter Olympics start speaks highly of Telluride’s reputation as the home of elite winter sports athletes. Kearney points to the local education system, which has historically been highly supportive of young athletes pursuing their athletic aspirations. The Telluride Ski Resort also deserves credit for breeding high-level competitors, he says, just by virtue of the terrain found here. Local ski programs, like the Telluride Ski and Snowboard Club, offer young athletes a tremendous springboard for establishing professional careers, he adds.
“Telluride is one of the best mountains in the United States, with some of the best coaches in the world and the most motivated kids,” McCargo said. “That, added with the support we get from the community, means the most to our success.”