When ski racer Paula Moltzan notched her first World Cup top 10 at the age of 26 last month, it was just the start of the best week of her life.
It was a milestone in what Moltzan calls part two of her skiing career, which came after she was dropped from the national team, went to college for three years and then came back as both a better athlete and a whitewater rafting guide.
Come 2022, she can become the oldest U.S. female Alpine skier to compete in her first Winter Olympics in more than 70 years.
“Ski racing only comes around once or twice in your lifetime,” Moltzan said. “So If you’re lucky enough to get a second chance, you should take it with everything you’ve got.”
Moltzan grew up in Minnesota, trained on the same hill as Lindsey Vonn a decade before her, and under the same coach. Like Vonn, Moltzan eventually moved to Colorado to hone her skills on mountains. That’s where the similarities end. Instead of becoming a speed racer, Moltzan stuck to the technical events of slalom and giant slalom.
“She wanted to follow in the footsteps of Tasha [Nelson] and Kristina [Koznick],” said Moltzan’s mom, Robyn, who taught at Buck Hill Ski Area.
Nelson and Koznick also developed at Buck Hill, which overlooks Interstate 35 just south of Minneapolis. They competed in five combined Olympics and skied mostly tech events.
“I grew up on a hill that was about 320 vertical feet,” Moltzan said of tiny Buck Hill. “Skiing GS was, like, not even a thing.”
She debuted on the World Cup, the sport’s highest level, at age 18 in 2012. She won the world junior slalom title in 2015 and scored her first World Cup points (by finishing in the top 30 of a race) in 2016.
It wasn’t enough. A head coach called to tell her that she would not be renamed to the national team for the 2016-17 season.
“It’s a pretty wrenching feeling, when you spend your whole life trying to stay on the U.S. Ski Team and be the best athlete you can be,” she said. “When someone tells you that you’re not making the cut, it definitely eats away at you. There was a lot of tears for a while. Then I just kind of accepted it, and I was like, all right, what’s the next best option?”
She chose the University of Vermont to pursue her other goal — to become a doctor. Moltzan skied on a full scholarship for the Catamounts while away from international racing. After a failed bid to make the 2014 Olympic team, the PyeongChang Winter Games were not in her plans.
Moltzan won the 2017 NCAA slalom title, then after the 2017-18 season went more than six months off skis before time trialing her way into the lone women’s World Cup stop in the U.S. — in Killington, Vt., for a Thanksgiving weekend slalom, about a two-hour drive south from the Burlington campus.
Moltzan was 28th in the first run, then fourth-fastest in the second run to place 17th overall. She chose to fund her way to Europe in December and January — while classes were on break — and added 16th- and 12th-place finishes in France and Austria.
After skiing NCAA in late January, a donor helped her go back to Europe for one more World Cup in February, where she placed 16th in Maribor, Slovenia. Moltzan made the 2019 World Championships team and placed 18th in that slalom in Are, Sweden.
Before college, Moltzan had one top-30 finish in her first 17 World Cup slaloms.
During that junior year of college, she placed in the top 20 a total of four times in six World Cup starts. They came after she didn’t ski for nearly the entire preceding spring and summer.
She credited NCAA racing, which emphasizes the team.
“I used to ski pretty on the edge of blowing out or skiing really fast,” said Moltzan, who endured three shoulder surgeries and six concussions, though none in recent years. “I was able to find this middle ground, where it was fast and it was consistent, so I was never letting down the team.”
She was also happier. Moltzan’s boyfriend, Ryan Mooney, also skied for the University of Vermont and became her ski technician on the World Cup.
“Having someone around that’s completely and entirely on your team to support you at the start and the finish, no matter what the result, is a pretty incredible feeling,” she said. “To ski fast, for me, I have to be happy and confident in where I’m at. Having him around really allowed that to happen.”
Moltzan rejoined the national team for the 2019-20 season and took a break from school that she expects to last through the 2021-22 Olympic season. But she failed to finish four of her six slaloms last winter.
“Coming off her best season ever [in 2018-19], everyone came in with these huge expectations that Paula’s going to take the world by storm [in 2019-20],” Mooney said. “She did it last year doing college at the same time, should be no issues, but it turned out to be the complete opposite because it was more pressure.”
Moltzan spent this past offseason, for a fifth straight year, at Crab Apple Whitewater, the Mooney family’s rafting company in Massachusetts. After first working as a photographer, she became a tour guide a few years ago, taking groups seven miles down the dam-controlled Deerfield River.
In between trips, she worked out twice a day, spending hours in a shed gym in the middle of the woods. A fan powered by a generator kept temperatures in check.
“For pretty much everybody in the country and the world, Covid was super hard,” Mooney said. “Some people took some of those opportunities to heart and really went with it. I think one of those was Paula being home all summer and being super dedicated.”
It bore fruit in September and October. Moltzan, after passing on a training camp in Oregon in July, traveled to Europe to ski for the first time in three months.
She was so strong in giant slalom training — keeping pace with two-time world champion Tessa Worley of France and New Zealand teen phenom Alice Robinson — that her plans changed. She was on the start list for the season-opening GS in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 17.
Moltzan, whose pet peeve is when people call her a slalom specialist, made her second career World Cup GS start.
She had bib No. 62 of 69 racers and watched the first 30, the best GS skiers in the world, on a TV from the ski lodge. The 40th woman to go, American Nina O’Brien, skied into 19th place and into position to nab her best-ever GS result.
“I’ve been on pace with Nina in prep. Maybe it is actually possible to throw it down from the back [of the field],” said Moltzan, who shares an apartment in Austria with Mooney and O’Brien, whom she called her “baby family.”
It’s rare for skiers with bib numbers in the 50s and 60s to qualify for the second run in World Cups, given the highest-ranked skiers go first and the course gets beat up. What Moltzan did was even more rare.
“I kind of black out a lot when I race, so I don’t really remember the whole way down,” she said. “But when I crossed the finish line, and I saw 17, I think I almost passed out.”
Moltzan, knowing she might not ever get another giant slalom opportunity like this, then turned in the fourth-fastest second run to place 10th overall. O’Brien took 15th, her best GS result ever.
“My GS skiing would not have gotten as good as it has gotten without [O’Brien],” Moltzan said. “She pushes me to be the best skier I can be.”
Moltzan and Mooney flew back to the U.S. the next day, a Sunday. The following Friday, Mooney kneeled and proposed in front of the Lake Champlain sunset, with Moltzan’s parents visiting from Minnesota.
“It was magical,” Moltzan said.
They’re back in Austria now, preparing for the next World Cup races — back-to-back slaloms in Levi, Finland, next weekend. Her prospects of making her first Olympic team in 2022, nearly a decade after her World Cup debut, are strong.
“As long as I’m performing to what I think I should be, I’ll stick with that,” Moltzan said, “but when I stop being as good as I want to be, then I’ll definitely go and finish school.”
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