Ryley turns grief into triumph
Pushed through pain of losing a friend to take slalom title
BOZEMAN, Mont. -- Vermont's Kate Ryley returned to the national championships as a double first-team All-American from 2011 and a legitimate threat for the individual title in both alpine races. On Thursday, she finished as the first runner-up in the giant slalom competition. And then Saturday morning, before the slalom, she received some very hard news. A former teammate from Canada, Nik Zoricic, had lost his life after crashing in a World Cup skiercross competition in Switzerland.
Vermont's director of skiing and head alpine coach Bill Reichelt discussed the emotional rollercoaster his star athlete was on Saturday.
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"She lost a close friend in a skiercross accident this morning, and she was fighting back tears. We just told her to let them out, to grieve, and don't hold back. She had a good cry before the first run."
Vermont's assistant coach Johnny Davidson was also a personal friend of Zoricic's and was in shock over the news. His team held a 92-point lead for the overall, but slalom is the kind of event where the slightest difficulties can drastically alter results. Ryley was the top-ranked Catamount after the first run in fifth place, but she felt that she had held back a little. The desire to serve her team first by skiing a bit conservatively over the personal goal of an individual title was a guiding factor. The second-place team, Utah, had its three skiers in the top three positions after the first run. And Ryley's attention could have very easily been elsewhere.
"It was hard to hear in the morning before the race. His dad Bebe was my coach when I was younger, and a bunch of us were on the [Canadian] National Team with Nik. In the lodge this morning right before our run, there were at least 15 of us who had tears in our eyes. It was definitely really hard in the morning, but I think I stayed focused during the day. It's really sad, and I honestly can't believe it," Ryley said before adding, "Nik was an extremely motivated skier, enthusiastic, and so fun to be around. He will be missed by so many."
Before Ryley's second run, trouble with the timing system caused a hold in the race. Instead of increasing her nerves, this delay actually gave her the time to think and plan her attack.
"I wanted to go hard, but we still had a lot on the line. I went for it, but I was very aware of where I had to take it safe. I knew there was a shelf, so I just rode the rut."
After completing her run, her time was not immediately available and she waited patiently for word on her performance. When her time eventually was announced, placing her in 32nd, it was inaccurate. She had actually claimed the slalom title.
Reichelt could not have been more impressed with her focus and performance in light of the day's events.
"She is obviously still upset about her friend's death. But she stepped up and put two awesome runs together. She's a true champion."
The Vermont women's team went on to claim positions one, two, and five in the race, and the team as a whole secured its first overall national championship in 18 years. For Ryley and Davidson, it has been a dream come true and more than an emotional day. The entire collegiate ski racing community would like to extend its sincerest condolences to the family and friends of Nik Zoricic, a talented and respected skier who inspired a national championship on the day of his tragic passing.