(L-R) Alice Merryweather and Tricia Mangan pose for portraits at Team USA Processing on Feb. 8, 2018.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Last week, Alice Merryweather thought she would be going home to Hingham, Massachusetts.
The 21-year-old speed skier — the reigning world junior downhill champion — was about to race in two world cup races in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. From there, she planned to return to the East Coast to race a few collegiate races and NorAms, finishing the winter at nationals. Then she would begin her freshman year at Dartmouth College.
But plans changed.
On Tuesday, Jan. 30, her coach sat down with her.
“There have been a few problems with your plan,” U.S. speed coach Chip White told Merryweather. “Instead of going back to the East Coast, what if you went to the Olympics?”
Merryweather burst out into tears and wondered if White was joking. She had not expected to make the Olympic Team this year.
“Really?” she asked, through the tears.
A spot had opened up after Steven Nyman injured his knee. The U.S. team retained the quota spot and wanted to give another skier Olympic experience. Although Merryweather was upset about a teammate getting injured, she was excited about the opportunity.
“To think that you’re not going, then all of a sudden, the door is open,” said White. “The elation that comes out of that from a 20 or 21-year-old is pretty exciting. It’s exciting for them because their whole world just opened up. They thought, ‘I have to wait another four years.’ To have that opportunity, that changes their whole world.”
Still crying, Merryweather called her mom, Liz, back in Massachusetts.
“She thought I’d done something [to hurt myself] in training that morning,” said Merryweather. “’No, it’s OK, I’m great, I’m really, really good. I’m going to the Olympics.’”
She also called her dad, who was on his way to work.
“I was completely surprised, speechless and so happy for her!” said Hugh Merryweather via email. “That was eight days ago, and it is just now settling in for me as I look at her texts of her in the Team USA gear that my daughter is going to be an Olympian.”
Hugh and Liz Merryweather scrambled to find airline tickets and lodging in PyeongChang and will arrive for the second week of the Games.
Merryweather’s rise in the sport has been as quick as some of her downhill runs. Less than three years ago, she planned to enter Harvard, her studies taking priority over ski racing. But after graduating from Stratton Mountain School in Vermont in 2015, she deferred college for a year to give full-time ski racing a try.
She was named to the U.S. Ski Team last year and asked for another year’s deferral. But Harvard said no. So Merryweather applied to Dartmouth instead (the college’s quarter system works well for smart, world-class athletes who want to pursue their sports full-time and chip away at college during the off-season).
White first met Merryweather at junior worlds last March. At first, he was a little worried about her.
“She’s so nice,” he said. “She’s one of the sweetest people you could ever meet. In this sport, it’s very cut throat and hard driven and you need to be focused and almost mean. I’m not saying that the girls are mean, but you have to have a hard side if you’re going to be competitive.”
Then Merryweather won the world junior downhill title, and White saw what he needed to see.
“On race day, she flipped a switch and was a different young lady that day,” White said. “She hit all the marks that she was supposed to, skied determined and focused and came out on top. That was the thing that made me go, OK, she definitely has the fire and the competitive spirit.”
“[Winning junior worlds] was a huge confidence boost and a good step coming into my first season on the world cup,” said Merryweather. “Now I’m at the Olympics!”
* * *
Tricia Mangan, 20, was the final athlete added to the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team. Her call came on Monday, Feb. 5.
She had just finished fourth in super-G at the 2018 FIS Junior World Ski Championships in Davos, Switzerland, and like Merryweather, Mangan had planned on returning to the East Coast for NorAm races (which serve as stepping stones to the world cup).
Mangan hails from Buffalo, New York, and is about to start her sophomore year at Dartmouth, where she’s majoring in biomechanical engineering.
The 2018 Olympic Winter Games had been on her radar, and she was disappointed that she was not initially named to the team in mid-January. She had competed in several world cup races this season but had not yet cracked the points (top 30). Her best world cup race, a 19th in the combined, came a few days after the team was named.
“I knew I would have to wait another four years and give it my all then,” she said.
But as Mangan watched her teammates ski in the combined at junior worlds on Monday, her phone rang. It was her coach telling her that she would fill the Olympic quota spot that opened up after Jackie Wiles injured her knee racing in Garmisch. Like Merryweather, she had been upset about Wiles’ injury but knew it was an opportunity.
“It didn't really hit me until I called my mom and dad,” Mangan said.
It’s a big difference competing on the world’s biggest stage in PyeongChang versus returning home to race in a continental series. But Mangan said the mental shift is not that big.
“When I get in the start gate, when it comes down to it, the way I ski, I always want to try my best, whether I’m in a world championships or NorAms or the Olympics,” she said. “I’m always going to give it my all and try to leave everything I have on the hill.”
“I just would have come here a little bit earlier.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games, PyeongChang is her fifth. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.