Home again, O’Connell thrilled to compete | SteamboatToday.com

Home again, O’Connell thrilled to compete

4 days of NCAA championships begin Wednesday

Dartmouth senior Mary O'Connell is one of three athletes with ties to Steamboat Springs competing in this week's NCAA National Collegiate Skiing Championships in Steamboat Springs. Three events will take place at Howelsen Hill and one at Steamboat Ski Area.

— This weekend may mark the end of something for Mary O'Connell, but it won't mark the end of her competitive skiing career.

O'Connell, a senior at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, grew up skiing in Steamboat Springs. She knows Howelsen Hill, the venue for this weekend's NCAA National Collegiate Skiing Championships, as well as a skier can — every corner, every roller, every downhill.

The idea that qualifying for her final NCAA championships would take her back to her hometown was something that drove her all season.

She hasn't actually made it to the national championships since her freshman season. This year, however, was something else.

"I had a different focus," she said.

She made the cut, and this weekend, she'll compete with 147 other young men and women, including two other one-time Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club athletes.

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"It's pretty awesome," O'Connell said. "To have the opportunity to come back and race on my home course senior year, it's the perfect culminating experience of everything the past four years."

Action in the NCAA championships begins at 9 a.m. Wednesday on the All Out ski race venue at Steamboat Ski Area. The men will start with their first run of giant slalom. The women then follow with their first run at 9:45 a.m., then both the men and women go again at 11:30 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. respectively.

That's the start of four days of ski racing in Steamboat Springs.

Athletes will race starting at 9 a.m. Thursday in a freestyle cross country skiing race at Howelsen Hill. The women will go 5 kilometers and the men 10.

The Alpine skiers are back at it starting at 6:30 p.m. Friday night for an under-the-lights slalom race at Howelsen Hill.

Finally, a classic-style, mass-start cross country ski race will wrap things up starting at 9 a.m. Saturday, again at Howelsen Hill.

Athletes earned the right to compete by qualifying throughout the season in their various regions. Each region had a certain allotment. Schools, then, could only send three athletes per gender and per discipline.

That made for some difficult decisions for coaches. Dartmouth, for instance, had five women eligible on the Nordic side.

Tyler Theis, racing Alpine for University of New Mexico, and Lars Hannah, skiing Nordic for University of Denver, join O'Connell as former Steamboat Springs athletes who made the cut to return and compete at home.

O'Connell was thrilled.

She's spent the week trying to re-acclimatize to 6,700 feet, showing her college friends around her favorite Steamboat haunts and trying out what's new to the town since she moved away nearly four years ago.

She plans to graduate in May in biology and engineering but is unsure if that will lead directly to a career in the medical field, or if it's a step toward medical school.

Neither option will be next.

Instead, she plans to continue skiing, likely joining a club in the United States. She wants to continue to chase the dream of competing in World Cups, World Championships and Olympic Games.

First, though, she's going to enjoy one last, great highlight of her college career and a week competing in her hometown.

"I've known that the races would be here for three years now, so this has been the goal for the past three years," she said. "To achieve that and be here is definitely quite an amazing experience."

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9

NCAA Skiing National Championships

Wednesday

Giant slalom at Steamboat Ski Area

9 a.m. Men’s 1st run

9:45 a.m. Women’s 1st run

11:30 a.m. Men’s 2nd run

12:15 p.m. Women’s 2nd run

Thursday

Cross country skiing at Howelsen Hill

9 a.m. Women’s 5-kilometer freestyle individual start

10:30 a.m. Men’s 10K freestyle individual start

Friday

Slalom at Howelsen Hill

6:30 p.m. Women’s slalom 1st run

7:15 p.m. Men’s slalom 1st run

9 p.m. Women’s 2nd run

9:30 p.m. Men’s 2nd run

Saturday

Cross country skiing at Howelsen Hill

9 a.m. Men’s 20K Classic mass start

11 a.m. Women’s 15K Classic mass start

2 p.m. Team awards ceremony