MERIBEL, France (AP) — When Paula Moltzan finished second behind Mikaela Shiffrin for the U.S. Ski Team’s first 1-2 finish in the women’s World Cup slalom in more than half a century, it was easy to assume that her more accomplished teammate was her the main inspiration.
In fact, it’s another American skier Moltzan still looks up to the most: Lindsey Vonn.
Nothing against Shiffrin, it’s just that Moltzan grew up skiing the same hill in Minnesota where Vonn learned to race.
Both her parents were ski instructors at Buck Hill, and Moltzan moved to the elite program run by Vonn’s former coach, Erich Sailer, when she was 12.
“Lindsey has been my idol my entire career. She is so inspiring,” Moltzan said. “Obviously Mikaela too, but above all, for me, Lindsey is an icon in my life.”
Moltzan still remembers the first time she met Vonn.
“She signed my poster when I was at Buck Hill. I was probably 13 or 14,” Moltzan said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It was pretty awesome.”
A year or two earlier, Moltzan first met Shiffrin, who is 11 months her junior.
“I’ve been Mikaela’s teammate for a very long time. They sent me a picture of us on the podium when we were at the Whistler Cup when we were 12 or 13, so we’ve been skiing together our whole lives,” said Moltzan, referring to the big junior race in Canada.
“We’ve had our ups and downs in our relationship,” Moltzan said, adding that Shiffrin is now “a great friend of mine.”
But while Shiffrin is two wins away from eclipsing Ingemar Stenmark as the most successful World Cup skier of all time, Moltzan has only established herself among the world’s elite in recent seasons, despite becoming world junior slalom champion eight years ago.
With that second-place finish to Shiffrin in Semmering, Austria, in December, combined with three fifth-place finishes this season, Moltzan just joined Shiffrin in the top seven on the slalom start list rankings — giving her the big advantage of being able to ski on cleaner trail. at the start of the races.
“It’s been a dream of mine since I was little, so it’s a big box for me,” Moltzan said.
Moltzan’s first race with top-seven status will be her biggest event of the season, at the World Championships, where the women’s slalom will be held on Saturday.
First, however, Moltzan has three more races she wants to excel in at worlds: the team parallel on Tuesday, the individual parallel on Wednesday and the giant slalom on Thursday. It’s a race of four races in five days.
While Shiffrin won’t compete because it’s an event she struggles with and wants to focus on her individual events, the United States still has a strong team in the team event with Moltzan joined by Nina O’Brien, River Radamus and Tommy Ford.
Moltzan especially excels in parallel racing. In her three career individual races in the event, she had one second-place finish and a fourth-place finish at the last world championship.
So why is she such a beast in parallel?
“I’m super competitive. You can ask my teammates: I hate losing practice. I hate to lose anything,” she said. “So it’s just having that competitor right next to you on your peripherals. It just makes me ski fast, ski hard.
“And in a way it is a perfect combination between slalom and GS. I started as a slalom (skier), now I’ve settled into a GS skier and I think the parallel between the fields is perfect.”
Moltzan competed strongly in the parallel team event at the Olympics and was the top American in both the slalom (eighth) and giant slalom (12th) in Beijing — all despite skiing with a broken left arm. But no one seemed to notice as Shiffrin surprisingly did not finish either the slalom or the GS.
Moltzan broke her arm in mid-December last season, but was unable to repair it until May.
“It was really painful the whole time,” she said. “(But) you just learn to build a lot of resilience. As a skier, the small parts always hurt, and sometimes it’s mind over matter. We have 1 minute to 1:30 running and I think you can teach yourself to take a little bit of pain for that long.”
Earlier in her career, Moltzan wasn’t ready to push herself as hard, and poor results cost her a spot on the 2016 US team.
So she enrolled at the University of Vermont and a year later won the NCAA slalom title. While still at UVM in 2018, she finished 17th in the World Cup Downhill Slalom at Killington, giving her enough World Cup points to return to Europe and continue World Cup racing.
Except she still wasn’t part of the U.S. team, meaning she and then-boyfriend Ryan Mooney — who is still her ski technician and unofficial coach, as well as her husband after they married in September — had to raise $50,000 on their own to travel and they compete across the Alps.
“It’s a performance-driven sport,” explained Alpine’s US director Patrick Riml. “At some point you have to ask the question, ‘Does the athlete want this? Do they have potential?”
Moltzan admits she was immature during her first stint with the team.
“I grew up a lot when I went to university,” she said. “So I don’t hold any anger or resentment towards the American team. They did what they had to do and I did what I had to do.”
During her three years of college, Moltzan majored in biology with a minor in chemistry. But that’s on hold now.
“You can only be a professional athlete once,” she said. “So when I’m done skiing, I’ll go back to school and finish my senior year.”
Then maybe medical school.
“It’s a lot of school and a lot of work,” she said. “But I’ve put a lot of work into a lot of things in my life. … Step by step.”
Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf
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