Steamboat Springs Jeremy Cota isn’t retired. Or, at least he’s not very retired, given the fact that he plans to compete this week at the U.S. Freestyle Moguls National Championships, which start Thursday on Voodoo run at Steamboat Ski Area.
A long-time stalwart on the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team, he said was taken a little by surprise when he wasn’t named to the team last spring ahead of the 2016-17 season.
He’d told coaches he was burnt out, and after eight years on the team, and 67 World Cup starts, he had planned to take some time away from skiing.
The 28-year-old thought that meant the summer, but off the team, he pushed that timeline and spent the year at Westminster College in Salt Lake City studying economics and marketing.
What he discovered was he’s content with his career as is, and after spending the majority of his life training for moguls skiing, he’s appreciated a winter mostly away.
He’s not quite ready to retire, however, so for one weekend at least, he’s back. He has eight national championship podiums and two wins. He's hoping to add to that tally this weekend.
“I enjoy school, and I’m pursuing career goals but a part of me is still always thinking about moguls skiing,” he said. “I knew if I could do just one event, it had to be national championships and then I found out it was in Steamboat, and yeah, it gave me another goal, something else to try to achieve.”
Kauf leads Steamboat pack
Cota, who trained with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, will be joined by the best the country has to offer this weekend as the moguls national championships return to Mount Werner for the third consecutive year.
The aerials national titles, a part of the last two stops, were awarded earlier this year in Lake Placid, New York, but the bumps skiers are back and will compete Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
The women kick things off with moguls qualifications at 11:35 a.m., a one-run format that should last about 90 minutes. The top 16 will advance to Friday.
The men will ski their qualification round starting at 9:15 a.m. Friday. The women will follow with finals at 12:10 p.m., then the men at 12:40 p.m., with awards set for gondola square at 4 p.m.
Finally, the dual moguls competition will start at 9:40 a.m. Saturday and should last about three hours, wrapping up around 1 p.m.
There’s plenty at stake for the skiers. A win at nationals can help them solidify a spot on the U.S. Ski Team, a status never more important as the Olympics loom 10 months away.
Some already have the designation locked up, but nationals can still prove plenty important.
No skier is coming into the event hotter than Steamboat’s Jaelin Kauf. After winning World Cup rookie of the year honors last season, Kauf improved on her performance in 2017 and finished her season with two World Cup podiums and a bronze medal at the Freestyle World Ski Championships in Sierra Nevada, Spain.
She’s not the only Steamboat skier looking for a top result. Lane Stoltzner will be hitting the home bumps after a strong season on the Nor-Am circuit, where she made the podium in six events and won two.
Avital Shimko will be skiing, as well. She also won two Nor-Am events and didn’t finish outside the top 10 in any of the events.
Ryan Dyer is on the U.S. team and will look to retain his spot after five Nor-Am top-10 finishes.
Maggie Ryan will be in the field after her own strong Nor-Am season, as will Landon Wendler, Tyler Strnad and Ben Hoefer on the men’s side.
Steamboat-trained U.S. Ski Team athlete Olivia Giaccio and Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club skier Trudy Mickel will both miss the event as they’re en route to Italy for the Junior World Championships.
Excited to be here
Then there’s Cota.
He put together a furious charge to make the Olympic team in 2010 only to come up just short, as the first alternate. He was close again in 2014, but ended up just off the team.
The Olympics can be a driving force in freestyle skiing, convincing athletes to stick with their sport for one, two or even four more years just for a chance.
They don’t drive Cota, however,
“It’d be an honor and cool to ski in the Olympics, but to do that, I’d have to enjoy what I was doing,” he said. “If you're not having fun, if you’re burnt out, getting up at 8 a.m. to train and having long days just isn't in the cards.”
Toward the end of last season, he realized it wasn’t fun.
He’s found advantages to being off the World Cup circuit and away from the sport.
He gets to spend a lot more time at home, for instance, and he doesn't spend any of that time at home icing his back.
But, the urge to ski hasn't entirely disappeared. He stood in the crowd at a moguls World Cup event in Deer Valley, Utah, earlier this winter, just watching a World Cup event, which he’d never done before.
He couldn’t shake the feeling that he could have been right in the mix.
He sprinkled in moguls training whenever he could, mostly hitting the bumps during spring break from Westminster, and now he’s in Steamboat, ready to compete again.
“I’ve done just enough training,” he said. “My skiing is just as good. The jumping’s a touch worse. I’m maybe at 95 percent.”
So how will it go?
He’s not sure.
How does it want it to go?
Beyond his basic competitive instincts to do well, he’s not totally sure of that either.
A win could put him back on the U.S. team and put him in the hunt for a spot at the Olympics.
“That would be cool,” he said.
He’s not sweating it, however. He’s here to ski because he still wants to. Whatever comes from it, so be it.
“I’m pretty happy with how my career went,” he said. “I was third in the world. I made a lot of World Cup podiums. I won nationals a few times. I didn’t expect any of that when I was 18.”
He’s not retired, at least not very retired.
“I would say I’m moving on, but I’m here,” he said. “I want to enjoy it, but I think I could still do well, too. I feel mentally pretty excited to be here. It’s a nice little break from school.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9