Olympic alpine racer Hailey Duke isn’t hard to pick out from the crowd leaving Warm Springs after a great day spent on the slopes. Most recreational skiers don’t look this comfortable with a pair of racing skis slung over each shoulder. She also carries a huge backpack and juggles the rest of the equipment she needs to train for what will be some of the most important six weeks of her life. And that doesn’t even take into account the Team USA race suit she is wearing beneath her jacket; the same one she wore in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, except now the cuffs are a bit frayed and are rolled up to her knees. She has a second one she races in.
Duke is beaming as she comes off the hill, thrilled to be back in Sun Valley, thrilled to be training on Baldy. Her bright blue eyes sparkle with delight as this native daughter (she was born in Sun Valley and lived here until she was five) explains how happy she is to be home. “My parents were both Sun Valley Ski Instructors when I was little,” she said, “I learned to ski on Dollar. This winter, I had to figure out where my support system was, where I could train most effectively and be most comfortable. Sun Valley is it. Baldy is an awesome hill. It provides everything I am looking for at the top level – the best surface, great courses. It just doesn’t get much better than this.”
Effective training is critical to the 28-year-old at this juncture in her racing career as she is taking a run at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games that begin in less than 40 days in Russia. She explains, for slalom skiers, the meat of the season starts now and she plans on soon traveling to Utah and then on to Europe to try to secure one of four women’s spots for slalom racers on Team USA. Making this happen as an independent athlete requires raw determination, outstanding organization and laser-like focus. Thankfully Hailey possesses all these traits.
Part of her motivation stems from now feeling strong, fast and healthy following brain surgery last February. Yes, brain surgery. After years of fighting overwhelming fatigue, Hailey was finally diagnosed with a benign brain tumor that was attached to her pituitary gland. A successful surgery left Hailey feeling much better quickly and by spring, she was back on her skis, pursuing her Olympic dreams. Due to her health concerns and subsequent declining results, she was cut as a member of the U.S. Ski Team and suddenly needed to learn to negotiate the tricky world of competing as an independent athlete. That means not only training at an elite level, but fundraising, securing sponsorship, planning complex itineraries and literally chasing the dream.
Since the surgery, Hailey says she feels great – invigorated, energetic and ready to take on everything that this next chapter entails. She is also slightly amazed that she was able to accomplish everything she did – great World Cup finishes and a spot on Team USA in 2010 – while the tumor unknowingly grew. Just imagine what she is capable of totally healthy and healed.
Hailey is ready to see just what she is capable of and to that end, spent the morning with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation Gold and FIS teams running slalom gates on Lower Warm Springs. She is living with coach Erika Hogan who she knew from her younger years in Sun Valley. “I’m living a few blocks from where I was born,” Hailey said. “I love the healthy vibe here. I love the people. It’s the best place to home base during this critical time for me.”
For the SVSEF athletes running gates alongside Hailey, having an Olympian among them is also incredibly inspiring. “I tell the younger kids that we are all skiing the same course,” she said. The FIS racers are those 16 and older who have qualified by criteria or been invited by the coaches to ski at the FIS (international) racing level. “It’s not that far away from where they are to where I am. We are working on the same things,” Hailey said.
Hailey will be training on Baldy 2 -3 hours each day before she leaves for her upcoming races that include two Europa Cups. To get to Sochi, she will need to podium in at least one Europa Cup race, get to the final World Cup race before the Olympics and from there, hopefully, it’s on to Russia.
“I really don’t believe you’re only as good as your last race,” she smiled. “I bring depth and experience to the sport and plan to work as hard as I can to represent America in Sochi.”
To support Hailey in her quest for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, and to follow her progress, please log onto haileyduke.com or follow her on social media. If you see a smiling woman with a frayed Olympic race suit encouraging local athletes before dropping into the course herself, be sure to say hello and give her your best wishes. Hailey Duke is an excellent ambassador for alpine racing and for Sun Valley and is sure to inspire the New Year’s resolutions to anyone with snow sports dreams.
Hailey Duke’s spirit, grit and optimism are a great example to us all.