From Summer To Winter: How Did Athletes From Southern States Find Winter Sports?

By Peggy Shinn | Feb. 07, 2018, 4:48 p.m. (ET)

Paralympic Nordic Skiier Oksana Masters poses for a portrait at the Team USA Media Summit ahead of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Sept. 25, 2017 in Park City, Utah.

 

Years ago, as Bode Miller was becoming one of America’s best ski racers, I asked him why he chose to focus on skiing rather than tennis. He was, after all, the 1996 Maine state high school singles champion, competing for Carrabassett Valley Academy, and I had watched him play a competitive exhibition match against Johan Kriek, a two-time Grand Slam tennis champion.

Miller’s reply was something like, “I would have pursued tennis if I grew up in Florida, where I could have competed against the best kids. But I grew up in New Hampshire, and we ski here.”

However, in some cases, the opposite is true. Several athletes who grew up in warm climes are competing at the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 this month and next.

Take Ashley Caldwell. The freestyle aerials skier grew up in Virginia doing gymnastics. But her dad loved to ski and had her on skis by age 3. When her parents saw aerials on TV during the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, they thought it was the perfect mix of their daughter’s favorite sports — skiing and twisting acrobatically through the air.

Caldwell was the first athlete recruited into U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Elite Aerial Development Program in 2008 when she was 14. She is now about to compete at her third Olympic Games, and the cold has never seemed to bother her.

Paralympian Oksana Masters does not mind the cold either. After her mother adopted her from Ukraine when she was 7, she lived in Buffalo, New York, for six years.

“As a kid, I loved snow,” she said, and she wanted to try a snow sport.

“I loved the aspect of alpine skiing and snowboarding and the badass goggles and the clothes you get to wear,” she added. “I just thought it was such a cool look.”

At age 13, Masters and her mom moved to Kentucky, and there, young Oksana discovered rowing. After winning a bronze medal in trunk and arms mixed double sculls rowing at the 2012 Paralympics in London, Masters was invited to participate in a ski camp. Except it was a cross-country ski camp, not alpine.

“I was literally working against gravity and not going down with gravity,” she said, with a laugh. “It was a bunch of spandex clothes and not the cool goggles.”

After a steep learning curve on cross-country skis, Masters loved the sport. Endurance sports are more her forte anyway. At the 2014 Sochi Paralympics, she won silver and bronze medals in the 12-kilometer and 5K races, respectively. She then took up cycling and competed in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. She now trains for cycling in Champagne, Illinois, and for cross-country skiing and biathlon in Bozeman, Montana.

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Several other athletes’ warm-weather sports have transitioned well to the snow and ice — such as long track speedskaters Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia, inline skating world champions who both grew up in Florida.

Mantia first tried speedskating on ice in 2011, and the initial transition was tough.

“Think Bambi on ice, but with bigger thighs,” wrote Mantia in his Facebook bio. But he quickly improved, winning his first world cup three years later and qualifying for his first Olympic team in 2014. In February 2017, he won his first world title on ice. On the Gangneung Oval — the arena for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games — Mantia won the mass start.

Several track and field and football players from southern climes have also successfully transitioned to bobsledding. Unlike speedskating, which is contested in indoor arenas, bobsledding is held on outdoor tracks. So the transition was harsh for a few of these athletes, braving the elements for a chance to compete for Team USA — and an Olympic medal.

Nick Cunningham grew up in Monterey, California, and got his first taste of the cold when he attended Boise State University. He arrived on campus in January 2005 as a midyear transfer wearing only a sweatshirt and jeans.

He called his mom and said, “This is the worst decision of my life.”

After graduating from Boise State in 2008, Cunningham tried out for bobsled, was named to the team, and moved to Lake Placid. A two-time Olympian, he still texts his parents when it gets really cold.

“When it’s minus-30, and we’re in spandex, I let them know,” he said with a laugh.

But so far, he has been lucky: “To this day, I haven’t had a white Christmas. I’m going to keep that going as long as I can. At home, we surf on Christmas Day.”

Also from California, Carlo Valdes came to Lake Placid after graduating from UCLA, where he was a wide receiver for the Bruins football team, a decathlete and a javelin thrower. His track coach, Mike Maynard, had also coached Cunningham and Meyers Taylor’s husband, Nic Taylor, at Boise State. So Maynard encouraged Valdes to try bobsled after graduation.

After he made the U.S. bobsled team in 2014, snow wasn’t an issue for Valdes; he had snowboarded as a kid.

But the arctic cold in Lake Placid was another matter.

“It’s not like I haven’t felt cold before,” he said. “But it’s a different kind of cold, especially when you’re on the hill and it’s minus-10 degrees with minus-15 wind chill, making it feel like minus-25 or minus-30.

“In those conditions, it really make you question why you’re in the sport.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.