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Whitney Gardner Hopes To Be The First American Woman To Compete In Skicross At The Olympics

By Scott Powers | Dec. 02, 2015, 1:54 p.m. (ET)

Whitney Gardner competes at the 2012 Sprint U.S. Freeskiing Grand Prix Ski Cross on Feb. 12, 2012 at Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah. 

Whitney Gardner realized quickly she was overmatched when she first competed in the Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup.

The competition was stronger and more experienced. The jumps intimidated her. The features scared her. The courses were too challenging. She was constantly falling. She just wasn’t meeting her own expectations.

Ever since she transitioned into skicross from alpine skiing, Gardner had strove to someday compete on the world cup tour. But now that she was there, she had to admit she wasn’t ready. That was difficult.

“It was hard because it was my dream,” said Gardner, who grew up in a family of skiers in South Lake Tahoe. “I never thought I wouldn’t, but it was so distant. It was surreal I was able to compete. I didn’t know if I would have the opportunity again, so I took it.”

Gardner and her brother and coach R.J. Gardner took a step back after her first world cup races in late 2013 and early 2014. They decided the best approach going forward was to take off the following world cup races in 2014 and better prepare her for her next opportunity at it. She spent a bulk of that year in North America getting accustomed to skiing with people around her, competing in a number of NorAm races, getting in as many reps as possible and working to be mentally stronger while maneuvering courses.

Gardner returned to the skicross world cup in January, and she could tell a difference nearly right away. She still had some ups and downs, but she held her own. She competed in eight races and finished 21st in the overall standings.

With that season behind and after another offseason of training, the 21-year-old Gardner feels even more prepared for the upcoming world cup schedule, which begins Friday in Austria.

Whitney Gardner (L) and Jackie Hernandez attend the 2014 USSA Partner Summit on July 23, 2014 in Park City, Utah.
“I’m super excited,” Gardner said. “I’m nervous, of course. I have such a different feeling than last year and previous years for races. I know that I have a lot more to give. I’m really excited to get out there. I feel like I’m skiing really well.”

One major difference this season will be Gardner won’t have her brother present at the races. R.J. remained home this season to concentrate on his career. He does plan to travel to Europe for a few races later in the tour.

R.J. has been his sister’s primary skicross coach for the last three years. He’s coached others in it, and he found coaching his sister to be unique.

“There’s been pros and cons to it,” said R.J., who is seven years older than his sister. “On the one hand, I want to make sure she’s safe and not putting herself in a position to really get hurt because she’s my sister and I love her. At the same time, one of the benefits is I know what buttons I can and cannot push. … For Whitney, that was easy for me. The hardest part of coaching was easy for me because of that relationship.”

R.J. knows it’s sometimes best to go with a negative approach to get a positive reaction from Gardner. If she’s doubting herself about a course, he’ll agree with her and tell her to pack her bags and get on the plane for home. That usually does the trick.

R.J. and his sister will still Skype before and after races, but it will be different for both of them this season. He isn’t worried about her performance, though.

“At the beginning of the season, it made me a little nervous how she would handle this,” R.J. said. “I think her being more independent has boosted her confidence. She can handle all this by herself and be independent.”

Gardner is taking independence to an extreme this world cup season. She will be living in a van as she travels Europe. The van, which is nicknamed “The Mothership,” is a lime green 2004 Fiat Ducato camper. It includes a queen-sized mattress and can be converted into a tuning room. She’s borrowing it from her friend and fellow skier Warner Nickerson.

“It’s been really good,” said Gardner, who is also a journalism major at the University of Utah. “The solitude has been good for me mentally.”

Gardner feels like she’s in a good place mentally and physically as she enters the tour, and she credits her offseason work to that. She spent the offseason trying to minimize one of her greatest weaknesses — her size — and added muscle to her body. She also sought to be mentally stronger and felt she accomplished that by often doing yoga and meditating.

Gardner is concentrating on her upcoming world cup season, but somewhere always in her mind is reaching the Olympic Winter Games. Skicross has been contested at the past two Winter Games, but the United States has yet to qualify a women’s competitor.

“That’s a huge goal for me,” she said. “Part of the reason I do this sport is because I get to kind of help the younger skicross girls and guys by helping the sport grow.

“If I’m able to make a difference in any way, that’s good enough for me. Being the first woman, one of the first women to go, gives me chills. It would be insane.”

So how does she make that happen?

“That’s a really good question,” Gardner said. “I think I just go skiing and do my absolute best. If it happens, then it happens. If it doesn’t happen, I’m still giving it my best. That’s all you can give.”

Scott Powers is a sportswriter based in in Chicago. He previously worked at ESPN, where he covered the Chicago Blackhawks. Powers is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.