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How Paula Moltzan Went From NCAA Ski Racing To The World Cup Podium

By Peggy Shinn | Dec. 05, 2020, 8 a.m. (ET)

Paula Moltzan in action during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Parallel Giant Slalom on November 26, 2020 in Lech Austria.

 

For many of us, 2020 is a year to forget. But not for Paula Moltzan.

In late October, the 26-year-old alpine skier became engaged to long-time boyfriend Ryan Mooney, a former alpine racer and accomplished kayaker.

“I was expecting it at some point but not right then,” Moltzan said of Mooney’s proposal.

The same might be said of her ski career.

On Thanksgiving day, Moltzan earned her first FIS World Cup podium, taking second place in the Lech/Zuers parallel race behind world cup leader Petra Vlhova.

Since Moltzan burst back onto the world cup scene two years ago at the 2018 Killington World Cup slalom, finishing 17th, she has been climbing the world cup ladder in slalom, and now giant slalom as well.

It’s a remarkable comeback for the skier who was the first U.S. woman to win the junior slalom world champion title—back in 2015—but a year later, was cut from the U.S. Ski Team.

Instead, Moltzan went to college. And thanks in part to NCAA competition, she found her skiing mojo again.

From Buck Hill to the Big Time

Moltzan started skiing as a toddler. Her parents were both weekend ski instructors at Buck Hill outside Minneapolis. Despite its small size (14 ski runs on less than 300 vertical feet), the ski area has nurtured several Olympians, including Lindsey Vonn and slalom specialists Kristina Koznick and David Chodounsky.

With two older siblings who skied, Moltzan quickly mastered the sport and began competing for the Buck Hill Ski Racing program under legendary coach Erich Sailer. On winter nights, she rode Buck Hill’s rope tow and trained slalom under the lights.

A top junior racer—with podium finishes at junior nationals when she was 15—Moltzan moved to Vail, Colorado, for her final two years of high school. Named to the U.S. Ski Team in 2012, she earned her first world cup start that fall.

Then in 2015, she had a banner season. She competed in her first world championships, finishing 20th in slalom. A month later, she became the first American woman to win slalom gold at the junior world championships. She capped the season by finishing runner-up in both slalom and giant slalom at nationals, then won the Stowe’s famed Sugar Slalom, beating three-time Olympian Megan McJames.

But the 2016 season was less kind to Moltzan. Although she scored her first world cup points (by finishing in the top 30) in the Flachau slalom, she did not do well enough to meet U.S. Ski Team criteria. A coach called her that spring to give her the news.

Moltzan was gutted. Her ski racing dream was over. Or so she thought. And now she had to figure out what to do next.

NCAA Skiing

College was the obvious choice. But “when it’s April and school starts in August, to find a school to go to is kind of tough,” said Moltzan.

Luckily, Moltzan had chatted with two-time Olympian Jimmy Cochran, then an assistant coach for the University of Vermont ski team. The UVM Catamounts extended an offer, and Moltzan proved her worth, finishing on the podium in six regular-season races her freshman year, then winning the NCAA slalom title.

Her junior year, while pre-season training with the Catamounts in Colorado, Moltzan won a time trial and earned another world cup berth, this time to the Killington World Cup slalom back in Vermont. With year-round skiing in her rearview mirror, she had been spending the summers as a raft guide at Mooney’s family’s company, Crab Apple Whitewater on the Deerfield River in western Massachusetts, and had only trained on snow for a few days that fall.

In front of thousands of cheering fans at Killington, including her UVM teammates, Moltzan stunned everyone—including herself—when she finished 17th (and skied the fourth-fastest second run). It was like being called up to the major league and scoring an RBI her first at-bat.

“Never in a million years would I have expected that result,” she said.

She credited the raucous crowd and the fact that she was relaxed and happy in the starting gate. Nothing mattered. She was just there for the show.

With classes and exams still to finish, Moltzan was invited to compete in more world cups that season.

“Time to plan an unexpected trip to Europe over Christmas break!” said Moltzan at the time.

She rejiggered spring semester—taking only electives with no labs—and set off for Europe, where she finished as high as 12th in a world cup and earned another world championship berth. She also competed for UVM on the collegiate circuit, helping the Catamounts finish second at 2019 NCAAs.

It was, she said, a crazy time. At the end of the season, she was named back to the U.S. Ski Team.

Moltzan credits her three years at UVM for bringing her skiing to another level. In that time, she grew up, she said, and learned to take more responsibility for her life. She also thrived skiing for a team.

“When it comes to race day, it’s not just for you anymore,” she explained. “It’s for an entire team, and I’ve kept almost the same mindset. Although I’m now racing as an individual, it’s never just for me. It’s for my parents, my fiancé, my coaches, and Team USA.”

Moltzan also learned to handle pressure on the NCAA circuit. Team scores are based on the combined finishes of each college’s alpine and Nordic skiers.

“I’ve never been as nervous as I was my freshman year stepping into the NCAA start gates,” she admitted. “I can’t even compare the feeling to a world cup because your team is riding on your back, and it’s not just the alpine team. It’s the Nordic team as well. You have six alpine athletes and six Nordic athletes all on your shoulders.”

Since rejoining the U.S. Ski Team, Moltzan is taking a break from UVM but eventually will finish her undergraduate degree, head to med school, and become a doctor specializing in orthopedics. (She is no longer able to compete in NCAA skiing, which has an age limit of 25.)

“I’m a biochem major, and I’m not interested in teaching those classes to myself online,” she said wryly.

A Good Start to the Season

Moltzan and Mooney, who serves as Moltzan’s ski technician, spent the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown first in Minnesota with Moltzan’s family, then with Mooney’s family in western Massachusetts.

In the spring, Moltzan had a realization. Last season had not gone as well as she had hoped. Improved fitness, she realized, was key. So she went “deep into the pain cave” deep in the woods, training for months in the “Mooney’s shed gym” and only skiing for nine days in June. By the time she got on snow in early September, she was flying.

At the Soelden World Cup in mid-October—her second world cup giant slalom ever—she finished tenth, her best result to that point. Even more astonishing, she competed in bib 62. The best GS racers in the world wear bibs 1-15. Moltzan’s second run was the fourth fastest in the field.

Moltzan was inspired by friend, teammate, and roommate Nina O’Brien, who with bib 40, also scored her best world cup result ever—15th.

“I was so happy we did it together,” said Moltzan.

From Soelden, Moltzan and Mooney flew home for 10 days. In front of a brewery on Burlington’s Lake Champlain waterfront, with the last of the fall foliage glimmering, and in front of Moltzan’s parents, Mooney proposed.

Wedding plans are on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

World Cup Podium

On October 29, the pair returned to Austria for the rest of the winter. Moltzan scored more world cup points in the Levi slalom. Then on Thanksgiving, she competed in the season’s first parallel event—where racers compete head-to-head in an elimination format over two runs on giant slalom courses.

Moltzan had never before competed in a world cup parallel race. Her goal was to finish in the top 30 and score more world cup points.

Wearing bib 53, Moltzan qualified fifth.

“All right,” thought Moltzan. “I guess I’m competing for more than the top 30.”

As she moved from the round of 16 to the quarterfinal, her emotions peaked. No matter what, she was going to score her best world cup finish yet.

In the quarterfinal, she beat Marta Bassino (winner of the Soelden GS); in the semifinal, she beat Olympic medalist Lara Gut-Behrami, who had won the parallel qualifier.

Moltzan started crying, “Oh my god, is this real life?”

In the final, she faced world cup overall leader Petra Vlhova. Moltzan put everything on the line. The worst she would finish was second. On their second run, she fell on her left hip three gates from the finish and slid through the next paneled gate.

“Most of the pain [from the fall] was numbed by the emotion of finishing second,” said Moltzan.

As for the rest of the season, Moltzan does not have specific results in mind.

“I am not a really big number goal-setter, I’ve never been that way,” she explained. “I think it’s a great way to let yourself down and let your team down and let coaches and technicians down. I just like moving toward good skiing, and that has been helpful this season for me.

“We’re just excited to see what else comes from the season.”

Peggy Shinn

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.