Natalie Pearl didn't follow the traditional path to the J-4 Junior Olympics Championships in Winter Park.
After failing to make the cut at the mid-season qualifiers, the Steamboat Springs ski racer wasn't expected to be training for the super-G -- or any other events -- at this year's championships. But on Wednesday, she could be found speeding down the super-G course at Winter Park, practicing for the first Junior Olympic appearance of her career.
She's there thanks to the Council Cup, which was held March 4 to 6 at Ski Cooper near Leadville. The races are a chance for young racers who didn't qualify for the Junior Olympics to get a taste of championship racing -- and the top finishers even earn JO berths.
"They try to give the races a championship feel," Steamboat coach Scott Wither said. "It's about allowing the kids to finish their season on a positive note. We had several ski racers who collected their first-ever wins, and their first-ever top-10s."
The Council Cup was also a chance, the last chance, for a few top racers to make it to the Junior Olympics. The top boy and girl in each of the age divisions earned a berth to the J-4 events in Winter Park or last week's J-3 events in Vail. Pearl's success at the Council Cup earned her a last-minute ticket to the Junior Olympics.
"I thought I could do it. But I was a little worried after the first race because I didn't finish as well as I had hoped," Pearl said.
But the Steamboat racer never gave up hope, despite getting off to a slow start with a fourth in the super-G and the first of two giant slalom races.
But she rebounded with the first win of her career in the second giant slalom and was second and first in the slalom races that followed.
The top results earned her the overall title for the J-4 girls, and she was awarded a trip to this week's J-4 Junior Olympic Championships in Winter Park.
The events begin today with the super-G. On Friday and Saturday, the racers will move to the giant slalom course, and the events will come to a close with the slalom races Sunday.
"She's the first J-4 ski racer in the history of the club to qualify through the Council Cup," Wither said. "It's a very hard thing to do, and it just doesn't happen that often."
But the coach said that although the Junior Olympic berth might be a driving force for many of the skiers at the Council Cup, it's not the main purpose of the event.
For many other Steamboat racers, the Council Cup was a chance to post some top finishes and boost confidence.
Among the top finishers was Linnea Dixson, who had one of her best weeks of skiing.
She placed second in the first super-G, first and third in the giant slalom, and fourth in both slaloms. She was second to her teammate Pearl in the overall results for J-4 girls.
Rachel Dobell also had a good week, placing 17th in the super-G, 26th and 29th in the giant slalom and eighth and fifth in the slalom.
Gracie Whelihan was seventh in the super-G, 27th and 11th in the giant slalom and 18th and 20th in the slalom races.
Top J-4 boys included Neil Harris, who enjoyed a second-place finish in the first slalom of the week. He also posted a 20th in the super-G, a 21st and 17th in the giant slaloms and a 17th in the other slalom race.
Matthew Sobeck was 28th in the super-G, 29th and 23rd in the giant slalom and eighth in the slalom. Matthew Dennis posted a 30th in the super-G, a 32nd in the giant slalom and 24th and 31st in the slalom.
Sean Geisler's top finish was a 17th in the slalom. He was also 19th in the other run and posted a 31st-place finish in the super-G. He was 38th in both runs of the giant slalom.
Charlotte Let-son's second in the slalom highlighted the results for Steamboat's J-3 girls.
She was also fifth in the super-G, 18th and 14th in the giant slalom and seventh in her other slalom run.
Mandi DeVos skied to an 11th in the super-G, a seventh an eighth in the giant slalom and two sixth-place finishes in the slalom.
Sarah Dixson was 25th in the super-G, 14th and 11th in the giant slalom and 11th and 23rd in the slalom. Teammate Monzie Nackard was ninth in the super-G, 16th and 14th in the giant slalom and third and fourth in the slalom races.
Caitlin Colgan posted a 13th in the super-G, a 17th and 19th in the giant slalom at a fourth in the slalom.
Jamie Gay placed 15th in the super-G, 23rd and 17th in the giant slalom and 11th and 13th in the slalom. Carolyn Chotvacs was 10th in the super-G.
Three Steamboat racers took part in the boy's J-3 race.
Top finishes came from Tim Scalo, who was 18th in the super-G, 22nd in the giant slalom and 10th and seventh in the slalom.
Zachary Sternberg was 24th in the super-G, 28th and 25th in the giant slalom and 21st and 15th in the slalom. Mark Dennis was 29th in the super-G, 24th and 26th in the giant slalom and 19th and 25th in the slalom.
Wither said that these young racers will continue to train and that he expects many to compete in the SmartWool Race Series finale and the Loveland Derby, which are scheduled in the next few weeks.