A Hero’s Journey: AJ’s Excellent Adventure

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Who knew my favorite sports moments of 2022 and 2023 would came in such back-to-back succession? First came Paula Moltzan, scoring her first slalom podium alongside teammate Mikaela Shiffrin. Then came AJ Ginnis moving all the way from bib 45 to land in second place in Chamonix, the first podium for himself and his country. It’s the type of thing that you dream about in fantasy football, if you played it. In Ginnis’s case, it’s the stuff of epic poetry, if you read it.

Specifically, it brings to mind the Odyssey, chronicling Odysseus’s ten year journey to return home from war. Like that hero, AJ Ginnis is a next level underdog, outwitting and surpassing every obstacle thrown in his path.

THE JOURNEY BEGINS

Most ski racing fans know the bare bones of Ginnis’s journey. Born in Greece, Ginnis moved to the US and attended GMVS at age 15, and was named to the US Ski Team in 2012 at age 17. He shared the Slalom podium at the 2015 World Jr Championships with future World Champions and Olympic medalists Henrik Kristoffersen and Marco Schwarz. He was the up-and-comer on an American team that, from 2012-2016, included 9-11 men ranked in the top 100 each season, of whom nine scored World Cup slalom points. Ginnis scored his first World Cup points in December 2016 at age 22, and later that season claimed the 2017 US National SL title. He seemed to be right on track for the long build of a World Cup skiing career, where athletes typically hit their stride in their late Twenties.

Ginnis and Moltzan, World Junior medalists in 2015

Then, that journey abruptly ended. At age 23, Ginnis was kicked off the US Ski Team, when the organization cut the entire SL team in 2018. Eventually, after trying to race independently as an American (he was the top American SL skier but unsupported by the US Ski Team), Ginnis switched federations to ski for Greece, his birth country. For this next stage of the Hero’s Journey, he would be on-brand.  

FORGING A NEW PATH

Ginnis’s own Odyssey has indeed been an epic tale, featuring false summits, multiple season-ending injuries, setbacks and challenges—all of them supreme tests of faith. You can read more about the journey— up through last year’s season ending injury that led to an Olympic TV gig—in this SKI magazine article from last year; or, this will get you up to speed.

New logo, new team

Signing up to ski for Greece was not a decision Ginnis made lightly. It was also not a lame ploy to secure an Olympic berth through obscure ties to a non-skiing nation (AJ was born in Athens and learned to ski on Mt Parnassus). Neither was it a blank check from a funded federation. Skiing as the Greek Ski Team—GRESKI—brought pride, a country full of fans and a flag to ski under; the rest, however, was up to Ginnis.

It meant first assembling a lean staff of his close friends, former ski racers Gaby Coulet and Sandy Vietze; then, it meant arranging every bit of off-season training and travel. During the competition season, the World Cup organizing committee pays for the three nights surrounding each World Cup event. The rest—rental cars, flights, hotels, food, training venues, equipment, etc—all depended on the shoestring budget boosted by friends, family, and loyal sponsors like Fischer and CLIF Bar.

Ginnis managed all these responsibilities, adjusted to his new team, and in 2021 earned the first World Cup skiing points for Greece with an 11th place finish at Flachau. After one full season together and a productive off-season training program, things were coming together for GRESKI, just in time for the 2022 Bejing Olympics. But then, at a fall indoor training camp just before the 2021/22 season started, came the cruelest blow—another blown out knee.

Ginnis quickly pivoted, arranging to finish his economics degree at Dartmouth while also working for NBC in Beijing. While the rest of the crew commentated from Stamford, CT, Ginnis was the only ski expert on-site. He was the one-man-show, skiing on one leg, covering the Games in which he was supposed to compete. Ginnis swallowed this bitter pill as he had the rest, with the will to move on.

GRASS ROOTS HERO

To this former ski racer turned ski racer mom, the most impressive part about Ginnis is how, throughout his journey, he has remained a stalwart supporter of US skiers at every level, from junior through collegiate through World Cup.

Ginnis, giving sharing some grass roots love
Ginnis, sharing the love at the grass roots

My first memory of Ginnis is as an 18-year-old. When rehabbing from injury during his second year on the US Ski Team, he presented the awards at a GMVS U-14 race. Since then I’ve seen him mentor countless student athletes navigating college skiing and the elite path. Publicly and privately he supports and encourages USST athletes, as in this article last spring about the state of men’s slalom. In it, Ginnis heaps praise on US Skiers Ben Ritchie, Luke Winters and Jett Seymour, not only for their skiing skills but also for their ability to navigate up the ranks without the veteran leadership their European peers enjoy. The same decision to cut Ginnis and his generation, inflicted long term damage on the next.

While charting his own comeback from this latest injury, Ginnis also organized off-season training camps for collegiate athletes—a previously uncrackable nut —in a win-win scenario. The camps offered work for his own coaches while Ginnis eased back on snow, and offered elite level off-season training to top collegiate skiers, a previously ignored cohort. So far this season on the EISA collegiate circuit, three American males have reached the podium. One is on the national team and the other two attended Ginnis’s camp.

Beyond the actual training opportunity, what Ginnis has served up to these athletes and the many more he has touched, is the example of dogged belief and tenacity. It was on full display this season, which started with a near miss and more heartbreak. In the opening World Cup slalom in Val D’Isere, his first race back from injury, Ginnis appeared to have secured a 12th place finish. Later, he was disqualified for straddling. More DNF’s, in the horrific back of the pack conditions of a record warm European winter, ensued. From home we watched them all, cheering then cursing at the livestream, and willing for different outcomes on the replays. Then, a glimmer of hope in Adelboden, where Ginnis employed smart tactics and measured effort to secure his first World Cup points of the season.

SWEET SUCCESS

I’d almost forgotten about Chamonix, the last slalom before the World Champs, on a hill riddled with terrain and traps that trip up the world’s best slaloms skiers. We woke up to see that Ginnis, starting with bib 45, had finished 23rd in the first run. As is our custom, we donned our GRESKI hats and tuned in to watch the second run, where Ginnis crossed the line with a sizeable lead. He later said that his overwhelming sensation was one of relief. “Finally!” is what flashed across his mind. As he sat in the leader’s hot seat for the next 21 racers his relief would turn to elation, jubilation, celebration—best captured in the finish area hug/dance with his band of brothers, Coulet and Vietze. It was the first podium for Ginnis, and for Greece. Most importantly it was proof of concept—belief is power.  

Team GRESKI, savoring the moment

Perhaps the best testimony for Ginnis’s accomplishment is the respect he’s earned from other athletes who called him out in their own social media posts. Kristofferson, Feller, Strasser, Shiffrin and so many more of ski racing’s elite celebrated the breakthrough they all knew could happen. But only Ginnis made sure it did happen.

I’ll wrap this up with huge congratulations to Paula Moltzan and AJ Ginnis, the two underdogs who have hereby graduated from my All Star Underdog list. I’m cheering for you, and for the many others on the list who are deep into their journeys. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be an Odyssey.

17 thoughts on “A Hero’s Journey: AJ’s Excellent Adventure”

  1. Great read Edie! I am so pumped for AJ, he has made his dream come true with grit and hard work. Congrats also so go to Sandy, sticking with his friend and helping him find the success he deserves.

    • Thanks for reading Rich! And yeah, it’s impressive the way those guys have stuck together and made it happen.

  2. Edie, you always impress me with your stories! Poignant tales with easy to read prose. And you just created another fan for AJ !
    Thank you.

    • Awwww thank you Ruben! Thank you for reading and for commenting and for being a such a big part of why I love this sport and its people! As for AJ, he is as fan-worthy as it gets and I know will appreciate you being on his team.

    • They are indeed! I love that they stuck it out so we could see their stories play out. Thanks for reading and following them Frank!

  3. I always root for the underdog as well, and this is a great tale of grit, resilience and succeeding agains all odds. At 28 years, Ginnis joins an exclusive group of “older” athletes to break through on the WC in an era where the most successful skiers typically hit their stride when still juniors. Looking at all the current WC discipline top 15 rankings from SL to DH, I could only find a couple of speed guys plus Ryding who haven’t consistently scored since their early twenties, or even teens. So the question becomes, in the ski team’s world of limited finances, should they keep an athlete who after 6 years has scored only once (a 26th place), or do they at some point have to free up resources to support the next jr worlds medalist or talented college skier? Any athlete who are kicked off can obviously re-qualify for their national team down the road, like Moltzan, Arvidsson, Leif Kristian Haugen and more have done. In Ginnis’ era, the USST only fully supported the super stars while everyone else had to pay to be on the team. It would be interesting to see a study on the long-term damage this did to the US development pipeline. 6 different American men scored a total of 445 SL points in 2012, but this strength had dwindled to 64 points by 3 skiers in 2018. As to the alleged damage inflicted on the new generation SL skiers after the “old” team was cut in 2018, it doesn’t seem to be long-term at least. By 2022 the “new” guys scored roughly double the WC points that the “old” guys did their last 2 seasons and look to be on track to do the same this year, despite the instability from having both their head coach and SL coach fired last spring.

    • Thanks for reading and adding to the conversation! For sure it’s complicated and I hope these stories just help give hope to kids outside the traditional path.

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