Eli Derrick competes at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lausanne 2020 on Jan. 19, 2020 in Lausanne, Switzerland.
LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- Skicross athlete Eli Derrick has spent years training to compete at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lausanne 2020, so when he made it to Switzerland and his skis did not, it may have looked like all his hard work was – perhaps literally – up in the air.
Derrick is the only skicross athlete who was named to the U.S. team for Lausanne 2020, male or female. The American has made a lot of sacrifices to reach the level he is currently at – including moving across states and training up to seven days a week. The Youth Olympic Games are open to athletes ages 15-18, but International Ski Federation requires skicross athletes to be at least 16 to compete in the sport, so his window for qualification was especially short. When he debuted on the North American Cup circuit last year, he had to have a good first season – or risk not qualifying for Lausanne 2020.
With all those factors, making it to the Winter Youth Olympic Games was a huge achievement, and he was excited to land in Switzerland and get on the slopes for practice. As he quickly learned, life does not always go quite as planned.
Traveling from a race in Canada, Derrick’s bags were mistakenly tagged to go to the Houston airport – which has the code IAH, instead of the Washington Dulles Airport - which has the code IAD. As Team USA staff and his mom, Kati, worked to track down the luggage to get it to Lausanne for his race, Derrick went to work trying to find a quick, temporary solution for his two days of practice. Thanks to social media, he was able to contact the Swiss skicross team and ask if they could help.
“The Swiss team allowed me to borrow a pair of skis, so I’m very grateful for them,” explained Derrick. “It was very considerate of them to let me get on their skis – I was really grateful that I could get out there and train.”
With each course individualized for the mountain, every practice run matters for skicross athletes. While each athlete’s skis are tailored to their body, style and preferences, at least being able to ski the course makes a big difference for race day.
And when the parents of a Great Britain athlete heard about his plight, they also offered up a set of racing poles.
“It was an international effort to get him on the slope for practice,” Derrick’s mom said. “But we did.”
Skis are an expensive piece of equipment, and the Swiss lending a pair to an American athlete meant helping the competition. And while that sportsmanship is not out of the ordinary for his sport, Derrick says the week’s events have really gone above and beyond to show the Olympic spirit here at the Youth Olympic Games.
“In general, skiing is a pretty close community and everyone’s normally very kind,” he said. “But especially here more than other places…You see some of that [on the North American Cup circuit], but not to the same extent of what it is here.”
After one practice day on the borrowed pair of skis, Derrick’s skis fortunately arrived in Lausanne. After a tune-up to make sure they were ready for the slopes, Derrick was back on his own skis for the second day of practice on Saturday, and Sunday’s races. Nevertheless, the sportsmanship among athletes lived on. After a few close races in his heats that had seen Derrick finish second, one of his competitors was there to pump him up at the starting gates.
“He told me, ‘You’ve got this one. This one’s for you,’” Derrick recalled. “It was really nice to have everyone just cheering for each other.”
At the end of each race, the athletes high-five and fist-bump each other, a combination of commiserating and congratulating. It is this energy and camaraderie that Derrick hopes to keep with him throughout his career.
“Skicross is a great community. We all sort of know each other, so you’re racing with friends… I just try to enjoy it.”