Steamboat Springs Sophia Schwartz isn’t focused on the Olympics, in part because it wasn’t even a goal when she entered the season.
Why would it be?
The 23-year-old freestyle moguls skier who lives in Steamboat Springs wasn’t on the U.S. Ski Team when the snow started to fall this winter, and she had never started a World Cup event.
She isn’t new to the world of freestyle moguls skiing but the Olympics might as well have been on the moon as far she was concerned.
But, oh, things can change so quickly.
She’s not there yet, but the fact that Schwartz has gone from an afterthought to an eye-catcher in just about a month surprises even Schwartz. She’s currently fifth among U.S. athletes in the World Cup rankings and with one event to go before the Olympic team is named, has a chance she never expected, to make the trip to Sochi, Russia for the Winter Olympics.
“I knew it would be hard to make it, and I still count myself as a pretty big underdog for it,” she said Wednesday, hours after another sterling performance on the World Cup. “I knew if I had an opportunity to get on the World Cup, I’d make the most of it.”
Make the most of it, she has.
Schwartz was the up-and-coming thing in the world of U.S. freestyle skiing nearly a decade ago, when she was in high school at Holderness School in Plymouth, N.H.
“She’s always been a phenomenal athlete in skiing and an excellent jumper from day one,” said her coach since her freshman year in high school, Rob Day.
She was a sophomore when she was named to the U.S. development team, that designation seemingly only a stepping stone to bigger things. The 2010 Olympics in Vancouver? Probably. This year’s Olympics in Sochi, not to mention all the World Cup stops and World Championship dates that waited in between? Certainly.
But it didn’t work out like that.
Her stint on the development team was short. Rather than start on a long career, she blew out her knee the following autumn playing field hockey. She attempted a return to the sport a year later but that effort was stunted by another knee injury, this time a torn meniscus in a moguls event.
After graduating high school, she started college at Dartmouth but soon put that pursuit on hold and moved to Steamboat Springs to train with Day, who moved to Steamboat the year before.
Not long after arriving, she blew out her knee again when skiing in the half-pipe.
So injury riddled, she dropped from the sport entirely, taking a year off where she just went to school — she’s continued with fall and spring classes at Dartmouth, where she’s majoring in neuroscience with a minor in biology — coached for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, and, through it all, dreamed of skiing.
“I really missed being on snow,” she said, “but I wanted to respect my body. I saw it as a good opportunity to take some time off.”
With plenty of school to keep her occupied and the “real world” seemingly setting in, one year seemed like it could balloon to the rest of her life, at least as far as competitive skiing was concerned.
Schwartz wasn’t about to let that happen.
“Even in my time off I just constantly dreamed about skiing. It’s my absolute passion,” Schwartz said. “My great fear was having to give it up because of injury.”
She didn’t give it up, and now two full years into her “comeback,” she’s proven she’s had the skills all along.
She gave up the other freestyle disciplines such as half-pipe and focused entirely on moguls. There, she’s flourished. She was fourth in 2012 in the Nor-Am Cup standings, then jumped up to second a year ago, piling up four podium performances in the circuit’s eight events.
She won the dual moguls competition at the U.S. Team Selections event in 2012, then won one moguls event and was second in another at this year’s team selections, putting her on the team and giving her the first World Cup starts of her career, the first coming Jan. 9.
A fast skier who has been able to score big with her tricks — a back full on the top kicker has been a major help — she’s made a mighty splash in very little time.
She placed seventh twice in two World Cup events in Deer Valley, Utah, then on Wednesday she improved on that, finishing fourth in at event at Whiteface Mountain Resort in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Since standing out with the first- and second-place finishes at the selections event, Dec. 19 and 21, she’s rocketed up the rankings and now sits on the cusp of making the Olympic team.
“I thought I’d be more nervous,” she said, considering her introduction to the World Cup world. “I really just focused on trying to ski within myself and not trying to do too much.”
Still guided by Day’s coaching — she and Day split for the Winter Sports Club this summer, Day forming a new coaching enterprise called Lift Off Freestyle — she now has a chance even she didn’t expect.
“It’s unreal,” Day said. “For her to go to her first World Cups and to be so consistent, it’s pretty unreal. It shows she belongs.”
The U.S. will likely send three or four moguls skiers to Russia, and Schwartz has placed herself right in the middle of the discussion. Defending Olympic champion Hannah Kearney is a lock to be on the team. Vail skier Heidi Kloser give herself a big boost with a second-place finish Wednesday and Heather McPhie and Steamboater Eliza Outtrim also factor into the top four.
Schwartz got one final chance to move up when she earned a start in the next World Cup, at Val Saint-Come, Quebec, not happy the position opened up after a teammate sustained an injury but eager to take advantage of another start on the world’s top circuit.
She considers her chances at the Olympics with the same cheery attitude that was an ally throughout her tumultuous career.
“It would be crazy if I made it,” she said. “I haven’t thought about it too much, I’m so focused on the ‘now.’ It would be a really big honor.
“If I don’t make it, just earning these World Cup starts, setting myself up to the on the World Cup tour full time is meaningful enough for me right now. The U.S. team has such a strong contingent of women and men, it would be really exciting to see my teammates rip it up and earn some medals.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9
Join the Yampa Valley VIP email club