Underdog Alert: The Best is Yet to Come

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Hello 2023! Other than rain and ruts, apparently, early January is all about end-of-year wrap ups, and looking ahead. For me, picking a favorite ski racing moment in 2022 was pretty easy this year, since it came days before the New Year.

My favorite moment, hands down and for so many reasons, was the Shiffrin/Moltzan podium in Semmering. I got a little teared up watching it on livetiming, huddled with a bunch of coaches and athletes around our phones at the end of practice. I got a lot teared up later that evening watching the replay. Seeing Moltzan nail her second run under high pressure and then seeing Shiffrin come through, take in the moment and immediately throw off her poles to hug Moltzan…that’s the best stuff of sports. 

It was especially great for me because I love underdogs. I love rooting for them and writing about them.  It doesn’t matter if they end up making a huge splash in the end, because what makes them special is their spirit. They believe in themselves more than anyone else does, and they go all in regardless of their odds.  

That said, when underdogs do come through it is like finding a $20 bill in a jacket you haven’t worn in two years. It’s a total bonus. And when they come through in the biggest way—like Moltzan nabbing her first podium, alongside Shiffrin’s 80th win—well,  that’s like finding a $200 bill in your pocket. It’s a moment of triumph and wonder and a little magic. 

I first started writing about Paula Moltzan in 2018, when the UVM junior skied herself back to the World Cup elite at the Killington World Cup. By then, she’d already debuted on the World Cup at age 18. She possessed a natural touch on the snow that the great Erich Sailer described as, “talent you can’t buy or sell.” Nevertheless, after securing the World Jr SL title in 2015, she had been kicked off the national team in 2016. She’d sought refuge at UVM and rekindled her love of the sport. From there she earned herself the World Cup starts that would be her path back. 

Her uphill battle in the 2018-19 season, as chronicled both on Racer ex, and in Ski Racing earned my eternal respect. She toggled back and forth between the carnival and World Cup circuits, supported by family, friends and her then boyfriend (now husband) Ryan Mooney, who signed on as her tech, coach, chauffeur, sports psychologist, etc.

Even after she managed, entirely self-supported, to qualify for the 2019 World Championships, there were endless junctures that could have been the end of her comeback; so many places when tiny Team Moltzan wondered how they would secure training, or transportation or money for the next leg of the journey, but pressed on, knowing they’d find a way.

Team Moltzan in Semmering

Nothing was served up to her. Nothing was easy. Even after getting named to the US Ski Team in the spring of 2019,  the funding pressure lifted but the performance pressure did not. There were nagging ill-timed injuries in a bumpy transition season that was then cut short by Covid. There were snide remarks about college skiers, and whether they were a worthwhile gamble. 

Like all good underdogs, she ignored the negative, met obstacles as challenges and wrote her own script. She used  the time off snow during Covid to rebuild herself physically. The next season brought incredible speed but also hard crashes and broken bones leading into the Olympics. She greeted the dreamed-of Olympic experience with smiles and enthusiasm, and emerged with a quiet determination for more.

Moltzan has been the epitome of persistence, of the “pound the rock” ethos. She’s put in the work, methodically climbing her way up the start lists fueled by high aspirations and sustained by patience. Even while trending up, her path has been neither meteoric nor linear. Which is to say, it’s been more normal than not, however hard that can be for fans to accept. We tend to want our stars to burn early, brightly and forever. Moltzan was World Junior Champion at 20, started her World Cup comeback at 24 and now, at age 28, her story is still very much a work in progress. 

This year, amidst lots of chatter about her speed in training, there came the disheartening string of slalom DNF’s out of the block. The third in a row came after a dismal American showing in Killington, where Shiffrin was the lone American finisher. Rather than slinking away, Moltzan, Nina O’Brien and Katie Hensien stayed in the finish area, signing autographs, smiling, sucking up their disappointment before returning to their work, pounding the rock. 

I remember in Killington thinking, this is a step. Every jump in speed takes an adjustment, until you can manage that speed. This is leading to something bigger. Her fans believed in her. She believed in her. It would happen. 

And then, in Semmering, it did. 

All the better that it happened alongside Shiffrin, at a time in Shiffrin’s career when she has the space and perspective to relish her teammates. Shiffrin’s spontaneous show of joy and respect for Moltzan was genuine. You couldn’t write this script, and if you did it would read like fiction, like finding a forgotten $200 bill in your pocket.

I haven’t written about Moltzan for a while because she’s long since graduated from underdog status. But the underdog spirit still burns, and that’s the best part of the Paula Moltzan story. It’s about belief, about what you can do with talent and grit, boldness and patience, gratitude and support. It’s a story that reminds us there are many different paths to the top and that the most interesting ones are sometimes the bumpiest, the turniest and the least expected.

13 thoughts on “Underdog Alert: The Best is Yet to Come”

  1. Such a great article about Paula! I remember you saying to me she was going to do something great! You were absolutely correct. I admire her hard work, grit, patience and dedication. Both Pat and I shed some tears watching that race. What a great moment! Thanks for writing another great article.

  2. Another great article Edie! Event though I’ve been away from the White Circus and the team for many years, I still look forward to reading your perceptive articles! Keep up the great work. Happy New Year!

    Dan Bristol

  3. Great Perspective.
    Truly earned success for this skier.
    The adjustment to new speed is real but often not appreciated. Thanks.

  4. Fantastic article. Beautifully written, you really captured. essential truths about life and skiing, as well as overcoming the shortsightedness of others.

Comments are closed.