Slalom and Giant Slalom
Prior Lake, Minnesota
First American woman to win slalom gold at the Junior World Championship
Making the U.S. Ski Team is never easy, but some athletes have an easier time than others. Mikaela Shiffrin? She’s had a pretty smooth ride as the national team’s star athlete (though she’s dealt with her fair share of setbacks and tragedy in recent years). Of course, you can’t discount how much Shiffrin’s incredible talent and work ethic helped pave her way. Still, there are young racers out there who, for all their natural talent, drive, and passion, don’t have such an easy go of landing—and sticking—a spot on the U.S. Ski Team.
Racers like Paula Moltzan, for example. The 27-year-old slalom skier from Prior Lake, Minn. is finally enjoying her moment in the sun now that she has a World Cup podium and multiple Top 10 finishes to her name. But she’s taken a long road to get to where she is now—one of four elite racers on the A Team of the women’s alpine team who will, if all goes according to plan, be named to the 2022 Olympic Team headed to Beijing.
Early on, Moltzan seemed destined to become a ski racing star. She was born to two ski instructors and started skiing when she was just a tyke on Minnesota’s famed Buck Hill, a suburban ski area with just 262 feet of vert. Heard of it? Probably because ski racing greats like Lindsey Vonn and Kristina Koznick cut their teeth there, too, and put the small hill on the map. They all learned how to race under the tutelage of legendary ski racing coach Erich Sailer.
Sure enough, after spending her formative years on the Buck Hill Ski Team and then transferring to Colorado’s Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy in high school, Moltzan was named to the U.S. Ski Team in 2015 when she was 17 years old. But that’s where the paved road eroded into a bumpy, dirt track for Moltzan. She would spend the following seasons working hard to rise up the U.S. Ski Team ranks from the national D Team to B Team yet struggling to put two solid runs together to score points in her races.
Then in 2018, the U.S. Ski Team cut her loose.
“I got kicked off the team for not meeting criteria, which basically means posting good World Cup results,” Moltzan says. “I didn’t have a bad year by any means, I just didn’t have the year they were looking for.”
While that may have been the end of many a young racer’s dreams, Moltzan refused to give up. “When you get kicked off the U.S. Ski Team, you have two options. You can either quit, or you can try to ski for college,” Moltzan explains.
But Moltzan created a third option for herself: She opted to race for the University of Vermont and ski as an independent athlete on the World Cup circuit. “Anyone can ski World Cup races as long as their points are low enough in the world ranking system, and mine were at the time,” says Moltzan. Anyone with the financial means and their own ski technician, that is, because independent athletes racing internationally don’t receive any monetary support and only limited coaching from the U.S. Ski Team. Moltzan didn’t have the first, but she did have the second. Ryan Mooney, Moltzan’s boyfriend at the time and fellow UVM ski racer (the pair got engaged in the fall of 2020), had been tuning Moltzan’s skis since she was dropped by the U.S. Ski Team.
But Mooney’s support went a lot further than that. When the U.S. Ski Team invited Moltzan to start in a few World Cup races—still as an independent athlete—after she posted a phenomenal result in the 2018 Killington World Cup slalom, Mooney also became Moltzan’s coach, travel coordinator, and translator. “The U.S. Ski Team basically gave her two shots after Killington,” Mooney explains. “She would compete in the next two World Cup races in Europe, and if she did well, she might get to start in a couple more. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. So we just decided to see what happens.”
What happened was that Moltzan and Mooney took their two-man show on the road in Europe, running up credit card bills with flights, rental cars, and hotels, and relying on the kindness of friends and strangers alike to finagle lodging and time on snow for training. “We kind of just played dumb and showed up at various training hills between races, hoping that we’d get some time on course,” Mooney laughs. They trained with local ski clubs in Austria and, thanks to a connection made by Moltzan’s current coach Magnus Andersson, even hopped into courses with the Swedish national team.
It wasn’t easy, but the hustle eventually paid off. After securing a string of Top 20 World Cup finishes during the 2018-’19 season, Moltzan earned her way back onto the U.S. Ski Team in 2019. Two years later, she’s back where she was always meant to be: On the U.S. Ski Team as a fully-funded athlete and one of its most promising Olympic hopefuls. “There have been waves of doubt,” Moltzan admits. “When you haven’t been a part of the national team, there’s not an easy route to the Olympics. But I never stopped believing in my skiing.”
“We both know that Paula can be the best in the world,” says Mooney. “She keeps fighting, even when the odds are stacked against her. Now we can see the top, and it’s just about finding the route to get there.”
Given the duo’s route-finding skills up to this point, their chances are looking good.