So, it’s not a surprise that some home grown athletes, as well as those who came to Vail to train—essentially “newbies” represented the United States in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. It was their once-in-a-lifetime chance to cap off years of training—and they did not let us down! In addition to Vonn and Shiffrin, four others, including Tess Johnson, Meghan Tierney, Jake Pates and Thomas Walsh hailed from Eagle County.
They were part of the 2,952 athletes, from 92 different countries, who competed in 102 events across 15 different sports over 16 days. Team USA hailed from 31 states, with Colorado sending 31 contenders.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist and World Cup alpine skier, Shiffrin, who was born in Vail, began her training on these mountains at an early age, taking tips from her parents, Eileen and Jeff who had been ski racers in high school and college. It was only natural that Shiffrin and her brother Taylor, who ski raced for the University of Denver, would excel in the sport. These days, Shiffrin travels to competitions all over the world, lugging over 50 pairs of long, sharp-edged skis with her to competitions.
Unlike most racers who might ski in, perhaps, three events, Shiffrin might compete in each of five Alpine events–each varying distances, each different turning requirements and speeds, each requiring specifically designed skis.
For the 2018 Winter Games, Shiffrin brought only 35 pairs of skis. A light load, but good enough to help win her medals. When the event was over, she wrote on her blog, “A million emotions. That’s what I felt this Olympics, and I walked away not knowing exactly which emotion I felt most. The Olympics were a test that didn’t need to be graded and I was so relieved at that thought that I was finally able to feel the one thing that had eluded me during those two weeks grateful. Just so grateful that I get to be on this journey and in the driver’s seat.”
Like, Shiffrin, freestyle moguls skier Tess Johnson was born in Vail and put on her first pair of skis about the same time she learned to walk! “I got into mogul skiing when I was nine years old,” says Johnson. “I originally wanted to ski slopestyle, but was too young to compete, so my mom signed me up for the next closest thing which was Bumps and Jumps, and I loved it.”
In 2014, Johnson became the youngest mogul skier ever named to the United States national team. After months of vigorous World Cup competition, she was named to the U.S. Olympic Team. “There were seven qualifying events for the competition that began in December and went through mid-January, right when the Olympic team had to be decided,” explains Johnson. “And it was really intense because I was traveling and living with my teammates who were my biggest competitors and, for me, it came down to the very last event, as we were neck-in-neck for the last Olympic spot. And I ended up getting my best world cup spot ever—fourth place—and knew instantly that I had made the Olympics.”
Perhaps, Johnson’s competing in the Olympics was meant to be. Her grandfather, William Oscar Johnson, who passed away in 2012, was a writer for Sports Illustrated. “He adored the sports of the Olympics, and adored the athletes. He loved telling their back stories,” says his son, T.J., Johnson’s father. Johnson’s grandfather would have loved to have written her story about her Olympic experience. “I had the time of my life. I can remember like it was yesterday,” says Johnson. “My family (T.J., mom Carol and siblings Anabel and Tommy) got to watch me compete. All of the athletes are amazing. And when you walk around the Olympic Village, with these people from all of these countries and doing all of these sports, you realize we are all there for the same reason because we each love our sport. It’s really cool to have that in common with all these different people.”
Meghan Tierney’s road to the Olympics was a bit more adventuresome or, one might say, precarious. The athlete, who began skiing in Vermont at age seven now competes in boardercross, a competition in which four to six competitors race down a narrow cross course that includes cambered turns, various types of jumps, berms, rollers, drops, flat and steep sections, all designed to challenge the riders’ ability to stay in control while maintaining maximum speed.
“My whole family switched from skiing to snowboarding,” explains Tierney, “and so I thought I’d try it. And although my siblings got it down in two weeks, it took me two months. But, I was so determined and so competitive that I wanted to do well.” She was quite the determined ten-year-old! Tierney, who with her family, moved to Vail eight years ago to attend the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy, credits her dad with introducing her to snowboarding competitions. “He entered me in local USASA (United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association) events. I used to do everything, like halfpipes, slopestyle, and even the racing. But in the past five years, I’ve done nothing but boardercross.”
However, making the Olympic team was not easy for Tierney. There certainly was no doubt about her talent—but, in addition to the bumps she would encounter while racing, she had some personal bumps to conquer. In November 2016, while at a training camp in Austria—literally, the very first run of the season—Tierney crashed and broke her back on the L3 vertebrae. She was helivacked out of the venue and transported back to the states and was out all of December and January. However, in true Meghan-competitive style, she was back in the starting gate at the end of February. “It was a big year from me, as I had to get over a lot of mental speed bumps if you will,” shares Tierney. “I mean, with breaking my back, I was kind of afraid and I had to work through that. I knew I had to hit the course at full speed, and I slowly kind of told myself that I could do it. I had done it before. I worked hard at the gym and in training at drills. And, now, I wasn’t just relying on skills. I was really mentally prepared as well.”
In the end, of course, Tierney and her family, Chris and Sandy and siblings, Chris, Daniel, and Makyla, got to PyeongChang. “Knowing that I rode really well was confidence boosting,” says Tierney. “It was good for my riding. The course, with its big jumps, was really built for my skills. It was the biggest course I’ve hit.
“And meeting all the athletes was really something special,” Tierney continues. “We all shared a dream, and we all could relate. We were all different in so many ways, and yet we all had that one goal of wanting to compete in the Olympics.”
Olympian Jake Pates grew up in Eagle, with his parents Amy and Chris, brother Chris and sister Amy. Pates competed in the snowboard halfpipe competition in which each athlete drops into the halfpipe and completes a run down the length of the pipe, doing as many jumps and tricks as he or she can manage and then are judged by their style, skill, and difficulty of the run.
Pates skied until he was eight years old, but, one day, his mom took him snowboarding. “She had some old stuff that I could use and she took me up Arrowhead and we just cruised around,” recalls Pates. “I was super bad at the beginning. But it was cool to experience a new thing and I kinda fell in love with it.” Pates attended the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy and finished school online as between traveling and competing, things became too hectic. Later he began to work with the Vail Ski and Snowboard Club for awhile and attended U.S. Snowboard Team camps, gradually competing in bigger events.
“I was about 14 when I competed in my first pro event,” Pates recalls. “It was the Red Bull Double Pipe in Aspen. It was a crazy year for me. It was the first time that I had traveled outside of the country for competitions. I went to Europe many times where I did events. It was surreal. That’s when it all came into play for me and I realized that this was something I could do for a while. And I’ve been competing ever since.”
Like most athletes, Pates’ mental preparation is constant. “It’s been manifesting for years and something I think about every single day. It’s embedded in my brain. Like when I think about a trick. I just focus on it, think about it and visualize in my head and then go up on the mountain and train with confidence. “A lot of my friends from other countries were at the Olympics friends that I compete with in World Cup and other competitions. And their experience is the same. You’re just a little kid and you strap on the snowboard, and you’re riding and it’s the most fun thing you’ve ever done and you can’t really stop and that’s kind of just it.”
And then, there’s Thomas Walsh whose road to the Olympics was a bit rougher than most.
“My journey to the games was a long one,” begins Walsh. “It started when I was very little. I dreamed of competing as an able-bodied skier in the World Cup and in the Olympics. My story changed as I grew up in junior athletics and league sports. I decided to go away to school and attend a ski academy where I was going to pursue skiing. But, unfortunately, the day before I was to leave, I was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma (a rare type of cancer that occurs in bones or in the soft tissue around the bones) and that changed everything.”
At the same time, Walsh, who is a talented actor was involved with the Vail Performing Arts Academy, was part of the dance academy and ballet company.
Born in Vail, Walsh started skiing on Vail Mountain, with his mom Kathy, when he was two years old. It was his playground, he says. “As I kid growing up in Vail, you’re destined to be on the mountain in some way. I did little junior races and really started focusing on races about age five. When you’re that young, it’s all about fun. I competed in Nordic skiing. I was in Ski Club Vail as well as Alpine, and then I made the jump to focus on ski racing right before I went to high school when, unfortunately, everything fell apart for me.”
Yet, this incredible young man was not to be deterred from his dream and competed in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Paralympic Games. “I started training to ski race in 2014-15 and progressed on the Paralympic circuit and the World Cup racing against other disabled athletes. I qualified for the team and competed in Korea which was a much bigger stage on which I ever dreamed of competing. It’s hard to describe. We each have our own moments. For me, it was when I went through the Super G race, which was my first competition and I could see the finish line. “I could hear people clapping and everybody was happy. I’ve always been a positive guy, so I got to the finish and was trying to catch my breath. I was so exhausted from my run. And I look at the time and it didn’t even matter to me. I was so happy that I finished and I was simply there in the moment. I remember stopping and was about to ski out and I thought, ‘No, that’s not how I’m going to end this.’ So I took another lap around the finish line just pumping my arms in the air and people started cheering. I wasn’t getting a medal, but I was celebrating myself.”
And we, too, are celebrating you, Thomas—and all the other athletes that so proudly represented our country and our community.