Last October, I competed in my very first World Cup in Solden, Austria. It was a goal I had set for myself after the previous season—I was well ranked and ready for my first crack at a World Cup. It was something I had dreamed of since the beginning of my ski racing career, but when I finally crossed that finish line I was left feeling disappointed. I was focused on everything I had done wrong and everything that I needed to do better. It felt like I had so far to go in order to succeed on this circuit, and I had completely forgotten about the achievement of my long-time goal.
My 2019/2020 season started a little differently—I was back at school. After finishing the 2018/2019 season with some career-best results, my decision to attend Montana State University came as a shock to many. Upon reflection, I believe that that decision was a key part of my success. Believe it or not, schoolwork was my stress reliever. Although it can be stressful in and of itself, it was an alternate focus from the usual skiing focus. School was a mental break, even though I was still using my brain. And it kept me from logging too many hours on Netflix.
Starting school in late August, I had the difficult task of convincing my new professors that a 22-year-old freshman from Canada who is about to miss 9 weeks of the semester is not going to flunk their class. After only two weeks of classes, I arrived in Europe and was ready to start the fall training block. I had only one goal for the end of our European glacier training: Solden. During the two training camps, my days were busy: wake up, eat breakfast, wait in the morning lift line (for far too long), train on the glacier, download, eat lunch, do homework, do dryland, more homework, eat dinner, and early to bed. Only to do it all over again the next day.
By the time we were nearing the end of our second camp in Hintertux, Austria, and fast approaching the World Cup opener, I was informed that I and a few other team members would drive to Solden to compete in a time trial for the final starting spot. Additionally, each of the ski companies had prepared glide tracks in Solden for athletes to obtain data on the quickness of their skis. Thanks to Rossignol, I started our first day of training with 10 runs down the glide track practicing my tuck before heading over to the GS race hill. Our first day of GS was to acquaint ourselves with the slope, and day two was set to be the time trial.
During this session, I was humbled by every single run and my legs were screaming by the end. I had never skied such a consistently steep course with 80% of it being one pitch. I felt as if I was fighting it the entire way, unable to find a flow or even arc a turn. I knew that if I wanted the spot, I needed to step it up the following day. Paired with the Norwegian team on day two, I was pleased to be only two seconds behind the fastest time set by Leif Nestvold-Haugen on my first run. The course was straighter and rougher than the day before, but I was able to finish two clean runs and win the time trial for my first ever World Cup start! I was fired up, to say the least—I had worked hard all summer long and I had earned my spot.
Fast forward a few days—we had returned to Hintertux and finished off the rest of our training camp. I emailed my professors informing them I would be missing a few extra days of school, and I moved back into our Solden hotel for the weekend. Due to warm weather, the race officials decided to cancel the men’s hill free ski that was planned to be after the women’s race. This meant that our only pre-race prep was the Ice Box—a flat, dark, and icy slope. Skis only last a couple of runs before they are dull and lose their grip, and we were all hoping to find the right feeling on our skis in the few runs we got. Luckily for me, I did. Unfortunately for me, the Ice Box is completely different in both snow conditions and terrain compared to the race slope. The snow on the race slope was icy out of the gate, grippy down the pitch, and the bottom flats slowly turned to mush as the sun baked it.
I had a later start number on race day, so I was able to watch the top 15 from team hospitality before heading up for my run. I confirmed my game plan and I loaded the gondola feeling ready to attack the course. Canadian teammates Erik Read and Trevor Philp started within the top 30, and I was able to catch their runs through the glass of the gondola. Once I got to the top, I did my best to keep my nerves at bay and stick to my usual pre-race routine. But with cameras and TVs all around, it was hard to ignore the differences. The start intervals sped up after the top 30 racers had gone, and my heart rate along with it. Next thing I knew, I was lined up in the corral and being clicked in by my serviceman. “Why are you so nervous?” he asked me. He was right. It was just another ski race after all.
There I was in the start gate—a large camera on a beam swung out in front of me and captured my first World Cup shot. The clock ticked down. The camera panned over to my right and I put my poles over the wand. I skated as hard as I could out of the gate. It was finally game time. Starting with bib 58, the grippy snow had developed chatter marks from those who had gone before me and I kept the trend going by chattering my way straight through them. It felt as though I was fighting the hill more than I was skiing it. When I arrived at the bottom flats, my legs were already cooked from battling my way down the pitch. I hopped in my tuck and tried to carry as much speed as possible through the last few turns before the finish line. I reached for the line and quickly lifted my head in search of the big screen to see how I had done. With a time of 1:11.54, I was disappointed and exhausted—I was not even close to making the second run.
As I was walking through the athlete corral, I could hear an obnoxious Canadian screaming my name from the other side of the fence. It was Bob Armstrong. On a vacation with wife Anne and son Harry, Bob had brought a little bit of Whistler Mountain Ski Club spirit to Solden. After taking off my boots and helmet, I walked out to the public area and was greeted with hugs. I was reminded of the immense support behind us athletes, and the Armstrong’s helped to remind me of the accomplishment I had just achieved. My disappointment subsided—getting my first World Cup start in front of 30,000 fans was pretty dang cool. Next time, I’m getting two runs.
~ Riley Seger - Canadian Alpine Ski Team