Editor’s Note: This is the fourth part in The Weekly’s ongoing series, “Olympic Hopefuls.” The first three parts of the series may be found at TheTahoeWeekly.com.
The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, are only weeks away with team selections expected by the end of January. Among those vying for spots to compete in the Winter Games are nearly two dozen Tahoe and Truckee area athletes that The Weekly has been profiling over the last two months. This week we profile Russell Kennedy, Julia Mancuso, Charlotte Skinner, Marco Sullivan, Hannah Teter and Shaun White.
By Tim Hauserman
Olympic sport: Cross-country skiing
Resort Team: Alberta (Canada) World Cup Academy
Russell Kennedy, born and raised in Truckee, raced for the Truckee High School cross-country ski team and the Far West Nordic Association. Now, he is racing for Canada’s Alberta World Cup Academy, the country’s most elite racing club, and is a long shot for joining the Canadian National Team on its journey to Sochi, Russia, to compete in this year’s Winter Olympics.
While the Tahoe-Truckee area is blessed with the largest concentration of cross-country ski trails in the United States, cross-country skiing still has an uphill battle competing with downhill skiing and snowboarding for our best winter athletes. It’s easy for kids to be enticed away from the years of grueling physical challenge necessary to become a top Nordic athlete, by the fun of bombing down the big mountains. Downhill skiers and snowboarders also can dream of becoming the next Julia Mancuso or Hannah Teter to bring Olympic Gold back to Tahoe, while Olympic medals have thus far been an unrealized dream in the Tahoe-Truckee Nordic world.
Russell Kennedy was a rare victory for the cross-country skiing community. He was a downhill skier who, in eighth grade, chose cross-country racing over downhill, and he’s been making the best of that decision ever since.
Kennedy credits his Far West coaches including Ben Grasseschi, Jeff Schloss, Glenn Jobe and Marcus Nash for inspiring him to choose cross-country skiing over downhill.
“I loved working with these coaches, they taught me a lot of what I use today, and brought a passion to skiing,” Kennedy says.
“Russell Kennedy is one of the most motivated, talented and fun athletes I have ever coached,” says Grasseschi. “He has amazing kinesthetic awareness and could do almost any athletic task quickly, and that, combined with his will do attitude made him super coachable.”
So, how did this Truckee kid end up potentially racing for Canada? His father is Canadian, so Russell was granted dual citizenship at birth. After high school, he initially thought about skiing at the University of Utah, but instead began racing in Canada in 2010, where they will provide one year of college tuition for each year that he races at the top level. Now, he is racing and training hard while gathering the necessary education dollars to go to college when his racing career winds down.
The Alberta World Cup Academy is located in Canmore, Alberta, just a short distance from the popular Rockies resort community of Banff. They train at the Canmore Nordic Centre, one of the world’s premier Nordic facilities, home base for the best cross-country skiers in Canada, and site for a number of recent World Cup races.
Kennedy had to garner top race results just to be allowed to race with the Academy. In Canada, at the national level there is no B Team, just a World Cup Team of four racers, and the next level of racers who ski for the Alberta World Cup Academy. As we spoke on Jan. 7, Kennedy was getting ready for a qualifying race the next day. He had a shot to make the team of four, but would most likely have to win the race to do so.
At 22-years-old, Kennedy is still a relative newcomer in a sport where many athletes don’t reach their prime until they are more than 30. Therefore, while an Olympic berth would be spectacular, he is more realistically focusing on doing well in the under 23-year-old age category. He’s been getting his first World Cup racing experience, and has been busy training all year for a skiing future that many see as bright. In order to make ends meet, Kennedy works as an Operations Coordinator at the Canmore Nordic Center.
Mostly, Kennedy is a reminder about what competing at the top level in any sport should be about. He is having a good time doing the thing he loves, cross-country skiing.
“While it doesn’t have the action appeal of some of the other winter sports, you can cross-country ski your whole life, which makes it a unique sport in that sense. I’ve had a great time doing what I am doing,” he says.
“What I love about Russell, is his love of skiing, he always had a huge smile on his face,” says Schloss. “I loved to see someone that has that level of passion. He wasn’t a super star at a young age. He slowly worked his way up the rankings at junior nationals, but by the time he was 17, he was medaling. He’s a great example of someone who sticks to it and made it to the top.”
By Tim Hauserman
Olympic sports: Alpine skiing, Downhill, Super G, Giant Slalom, Super Combined
Homewood: Reno, Nev., and Olympic Valley
Resort Team: Squaw Valley
Julia Mancuso was born in Reno and raised in Olympic Valley. She began skiing and racing early on the slopes of Squaw, and made a mercurial rise to her first World Cup competition at the age of 15. Mancuso went on to win three Olympic medals including a Gold in the Giant Slalom in 2006, and two silvers in 2010, becoming the first American female skier to win three Olympic medals. She’s also won five World Championship medals, and seven World Cup Races.
While Mancuso’s race results this past year would not lead one to believe that she will be able to bring home medals from the 2012 Winter Olympics in Sochi, that’s what her naysayers said before the last two Olympics. In 2006, Julia won her Gold Medal after only three podium finishes that year. In 2010, she won two Olympic medals after not finishing in the top three in a race in the previous two years. This year, Mancuso has only placed in the top 15 once in the last 10 World Cup races. Just when you count her out, she comes through in the clutch.
Julia was raised as the middle of three sisters. While she looked up to her racer older sister, to this reporter, Julia’s quirky, independent personality is reminiscent of her younger sister Sara, who is now a singer known as Smokey Jones. I remember Sara Mancuso as the other Sara in my daughter’s second-grade class at Tahoe Lake School.
Julia Mancuso is a sponsor and fan favorite because of a smile that lights up a room, and her independent, laid back lifestyle. She has worn a tiara on her helmet several times during races, and proudly displayed it at the award ceremonies for her 2010 Olympic medal. After the tiara became a symbol of her Super Jules personality, she developed a line of lingerie called, Kiss My Tiara, and was quoted as saying, “I think underwear is my calling.” She’s been a Lange Girl, an underwear model and has appeared in a number of commercials including one for 24 Hour Fitness and a memorable Visa commercial, which begins with her as a little girl drawing a picture of herself winning gold, and ends with her arms raised in triumph after winning that long-desired medal.
While Mancuso still has a residence in Olympic Valley and Squaw proudly boasts a run named Julia’s Gold, in the summer months you are more likely to find Mancuso in the water’s of Hawaii surfing or paddling, then pedaling the single track around Tahoe.
Of course, since it is Julia, she’s not just taking it easy. She’s jumping into the water, diving down to the bottom, picking up large rocks and then running across the bottom of the ocean until she runs out of breath. Because whatever Mancuso is doing, it’s all about having fun while training. And, if she can do it in a swim suit, all the better.
Mancuso also is a savvy business woman with a list of sponsors a mile long including Go Pro, Squaw Valley, Koss, Head, Nike, Spyder and Visa. She owns the Performance Training Center in Truckee (10775 Pioneer Trail), which has a state-of-the- art gym and a regular schedule of fitness classes.
Recently, after her racing results were less then desired, Mancuso reported that she was “Taking a short break at home” before the Olympics. We all know what that means – she is just lowering our expectations, while she get’s primed for the big event. She will be ready to surprise the pundits with a win, although you would think that after three Olympic medals no one should be surprised when Julia win’s big.
Charlotte Mia Skinner
By Jenn Sheridan
Charlotte Mia Skinner | Sugar Bowl
Olympic Sport: Ski Cross
Hometown: Duluth, Minn.
Resort Team: Squaw Valley
Of all the qualities that make a strong athlete, determination and sharp focus may be what sets the best apart from the rest. For Charlotte Mia Skinner, these qualities are natural.
A native of Duluth, Minn., Skinner spent most of her childhood on the hill. Her father owned two ski resorts in the Midwest, which gave Skinner the opportunity to ski as much as possible. Her first taste of competition was alpine racing with the Duluth Ski Club, which travelled to United States Ski Association and FIS events during the winter. In high school, Skinner qualified for state championships three out of four years, and made the All-State team one of those years. Despite the success, Skinner sought something more from skiing.
“I will always love alpine, but I wanted something a little more exciting and different,” said Skinner.
Her first attempt at ski cross came after relocating to California to study economics at the University of California, Berkeley, where she joined the ski club and competed at the U.S. Collegiate Ski Association National Championships.
“I tried it, and it was awesome,” said Skinner.
The next summer, Skinner found herself training at Mount Hood, Ore., with X-Games ski cross athlete and Canadian Development Coach Stanly Hayer, who gave her some pointers on how to break into ski cross.
Skinner’s next attempt at ski cross was during the Canadian Nationals in December 2012.
“I got my butt handed to me. I was so out of my element, but I was like, I can do this. This is fun,” said Skinner.
After a phone call to announce her plans to her parents, Skinner jumped into the sport headfirst. Despite not having immediate answers to their questions about a sport they had never heard of, where she would live and how she would pay for it. She assured them she could make it happen.
She discovered the ski cross program at Squaw Valley through talking to friends and soon moved to the Tahoe area to begin training and building connections. She met coach Donald “Mort” Nyberg who helped her earn the Team Squaw Athlete Scholarship to train with Squaw Valley Ski Team. Mort’s direction helped Skinner grow from a skier with little ski cross background to someone who could confidently attack a ski cross course. Off the hill, Mort offered guidence and mentorship in with both physical and mental training, as well as balancing school with competition.
That season, Skinner entered as many North American Cup Competitions as she could, and competed in all of the Revolution Tour ski cross events. By the end of the season, it was obvious her dedication was paying off. She was ranked second in the country in women’s ski cross by USSA.
The following summer, she took summer classes before deciding to take the fall semester off to work and train. She hired a personal trainer to help ensure she reached peak fitness at the best times for competition.
Her job as a customer service representative for the audio accessories manufacturer Boombotix allows her to work remotely, which is necessary for her to balance training while independently funding her own ski career.
This season, Skinner hopes to compete in all six of the North American Cup competitions, as well as competitions on the Europa Cup in Europe. Her goal is to win the Nor-Am Cup, which will earn her a spot on the World Cup tour. Her long-term goal is to qualify for the 2018 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, as well, since Skinner is of Korean descent.
“I’ve always dreamed of being an Olympic athlete, in high school I grew up doing tennis, track and skiing,” she said.
However, qualifying proves to be a complicated process. Ski cross athletes compete with mogul, slopestyle and half pipe athletes for a limited number of spots on the Olympic teams. In 2010, no female ski cross athletes qualified for the team due to the sport having a limited number of female competitors. None of these hurdles bother Skinner who is excited to see the events growth over the years and highly anticipates whatever is in store for this season.
by Jessie Marchesseau
Marco Sullivan | Courtesy U.S. Ski Team
Olympic sport: Alpine skiing, downhill & Super G
Hometown: Tahoe City
Resort team: Squaw Valley
Two-time Olympic downhiller Marco Sullivan is feeling pretty optimistic about his chances of making the 2014 Olympic team. But just 18 months ago, things weren’t looking quite so rosy.
When you’re flying down an icy slope at upwards of 80 mph, a tiny mistake can have great consequences. At 33, Sullivan has been ski racing most of his life and has experienced his fair share of consequences. He has had three knee reconstructions, two fractured heels, two separated shoulders, two herniated discs and two concussions. Injuries are the hardest part of his job.
He had been dealing with a back injury since soon after the 2010 Olympic Games, but it was the season-ending concussion he sustained in December 2011 that nearly ended his career. His sponsors dropped him, and the team said he could come along next season, but he would have to pay his own way. He had already been on the U.S. Ski Team for more than a decade, and it looked like retirement was looming.
“I had to make a decision what I wanted to do, and I still wanted to race,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan took steps to heal his body and started raising money. Eventually, Atomic skis and Squaw Valley jumped on board, and he was back on the hill. Sullivan climbed his way up from the bottom and went on to earn a spot as one of the top 15 racers in the world that season.
Well, that was just last year, and if he keeps it up, he could be on his way to Sochi.
Sullivan grew up living in Tahoe City and skiing at Squaw Valley. His uncle was the head of the ski team there, and his dad was a ski patroller. You could say skiing was just in his blood.
He started out buzzing around Squaw with the Mighty Mites. By 15, Sullivan was racing internationally and on the U.S. Ski Team by 18. Three years later, he crossed the Olympic finish line in Salt Lake City with his family, friends and even former school teachers cheering him on. It was the single most memorable moment of his skiing career.
Sullivan returned to the Olympics in 2010, and Sochi could be his third Olympic run.
One thing that he says that he likes about the Olympics is how it puts everyone on an even playing field. In ski racing, repetition creates an advantage. Many racers ski the same courses year after year, learning all the ins and outs, getting better with each and every run. The Olympic course, however, is equally unfamiliar to nearly all the racers. What’s left is pure skill and what Sullivan considers the most important aspect of ski racing: mental strength.
“What it comes down to is the guys who can embrace the fear and throw themselves down the mountain with no reservation,” he said.
Sullivan admits he may not be the most technically correct skier on the course. Growing up at Squaw Valley, he did a lot more freeskiing than running gates. But, he would like to think he’s pretty good at channeling all of his emotions on race day into just one thing: speed.
He has even mastered the Arctic Man, an Alaskan ski/snowmobile team race, which his team has won for three years running. In the race, the skier races down a mountain, is pulled up another mountain by his snowmobile-driving teammate and then skis down the other side. Last year, the entire 5-mile course took him less than 4 minutes.
And while skiing fast may be Sullivan’s job, he isn’t just in it to win it. He says he skis because he loves it. A pair of powder skis can always be found in his quiver, and he enjoys big mountain riding and freeskiing every chance he gets, whether it’s heli-skiing the back country or mobbing with the Mighty Mites at Squaw.
“I think I like skiing because it’s more of a lifestyle than a sport,” Sullivan said. “I love how people live and die by the mountains.”
By Tim Hauserman
Hannah Teter | Courtesy Alberta World Cup Academy
Olympic sport: Half Pipe Snowboard
Hometown: Belmont, Vt., & South Lake Tahoe
Resort team: Sierra-at-Tahoe
Half pipe snowboarder and South Lake Tahoe local Hannah Teter won a Gold Medal in the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy, then came back four years later to take a Silver in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Now, with the 2014 Olympics in Sochi fast approaching, she is competing to fly high above the half pipe again for the United States.
“This would be my third Olympics and the hardest thing about getting there is always the qualifying process,” she says. “The best girl snowboarders are from the USA, so we all battle it out for the few Olympic spots that the USA gets, and then once you actually get to the Olympics, it’s kinda of a cake walk. The key to being successful is keeping a positive motivated mindset.”
When Teter accomplished her goal of winning Gold at the 2006 Olympics, she decided to help others in need, and she’s been doing it ever since. First, she started the charity Hannah’s Gold. When she was growing up in Vermont her family would make maple syrup, so she decided it would be cool to sell maple syrup and have the proceeds go to help the village of Kirindon in Kenya get clean water, proper sanitation and the other essentials of life. Teter’s been to the village and has seen firsthand how just a little bit of money can make incredible strides in improving people’s lives. She added her snowboard contest winnings and organic sweatband sales to the effort.
“My goal from the beginning was that if I ever made it big I would reach out as much as humanly possible,” she said. “That’s the goal right now, to keep reaching out and touching other people and other places and helping create positive change.” Purchase maple syrup or make a donation at hannahsgold.com.
Hannah’s Gold was just the beginning.
“A few friends and I wanted to start something that everyone could feel like they were a part of so we decided on selling panties with a purpose. Every pair sold feeds a child for a month,” Teter says.
They are called Sweet Cheeks Panties and 40 percent of the sales proceeds go to Children’s International to feed and nourish children in extreme poverty. Purchase a pair at sweetcheekspanties.com.
If you look into the childhood of many a successful athlete, you will find they have older siblings or other role models who are active in the same sport. That is Hannah Teter’s story. She credits her four older brothers for her snowboarding success.
“I always tagged along and wanted to do everything they were doing. I’d watch them build mini snowboard parks in our backyard when I was around 5 and thought they were so cool,” she says.
She started snowboarding at 8, and at the age of 15 garnered a 4th place finish in her first World Cup half pipe. She has gone on to six World Cup victories in addition to her Olympic success.
Teter was born in Belmont, Vt., but she says, “I visited South Lake Tahoe a few times when I was younger and loved it so much that I bought my first house and moved there when I was 18. Two of my older brothers and I lived there and had some of the most fun days riding powder at Sierra. We would escape from the contest scene and just soul shred. That has helped me to keep in my professional groove.”
One of the reasons for the success of Teter’s charities is her powerhouse promotional efforts. She won the ESPY award for Best Action Sports Female in 2006. Then, after the 2010 Winter Olympics, Hannah graced the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. She has been in two snowboard-oriented films – “First Descent” and “Snow Blind” – and perhaps best of all, Ben and Jerry’s created Hannah Teter’s Maple Blondie ice cream, with a portion of the proceeds going to Hannah’s Gold.
Hannah Teter will be doing her best to bring home the Gold for the United States in Sochi. But, she will not be doing just for herself, and her country, but also for the impact it will have on a small village in Africa, and on some hungry kids throughout the world.
by Jessie Marchesseau
Shaun White | Northstar California
Olympic sport: Snowboarding halfpipe & slopestyle
Resort team: Northstar California
Shaun White is no rookie when it comes to the Olympics. As part of Team USA, White took home the gold in the men’s snowboard halfpipe at the Torino, Italy, 2006 Olympic Games and again at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.
But, to compete in the snowboarding slopestyle at this year’s Sochi games would be a first for White. In fact, it will be a first for all the athletes since it has never before been included as an Olympic event. White is currently in the running to make the slopestyle team, and his previous medals in the halfpipe indicate he is a serious contender for one of those spots, as well. Up to four athletes can be named to the team for each event.
At 27, White has been a professional snowboarder for more than half of his life. Despite being born with a heart defect that required two surgeries before he was even a year old, White took to sports at a young age. He skateboarded, played soccer and went on family ski outings. Following in the footsteps of his older brother, White traded in his skis for a snowboard at the age of 6. Before long, he was entering competitions and gaining sponsors.
In the off-season, White also was getting noticed for his skateboarding skills. By 17, he had turned pro in that sport, as well. This unique combination of skills resulted in White being the first athlete to bring home gold medals from both the Summer and Winter X Games in the same year, a feat he accomplished in 2011. The following year, White returned to win the snowboarding halfpipe competition again, this time with an unprecedented perfect score.
In all, White has 15 X Games gold medals under his belt. Eight of those, like his Olympic medals, are for the halfpipe. Five are for slopestyle. White has been competing in both events at the X Games for more than a decade. However, the 2014 Olympic teams for these events are not based on overall experience. Athletes will be chosen according to the outcome of five qualifying competitions taking place throughout December and January, the last of which will be held at Mammoth Mountain in mid-January.
If named to the team, White would have the opportunity to become the first, three-time gold medal holder in Olympic snowboard halfpipe. He also would be defending his record high score of 48.4 out of 50 earned at the 2010 games in Vancouver. The teams are expected to be announced around Jan. 22.
When he’s not at competitions or riding in his own private halfpipes, White trains in a halfpipe specially designed for him at Northstar. He named Northstar his home resort in 2011.