|(L-R) Akira Sasaki of Japan (silver), David Chodounsky (gold) and Adam Zampa of Slovakia (bronze) after the Winter Games New Zealand men's slalom on Aug. 21, 2013 in Queenstown, New Zealand.
David Chodounsky is currently one of the top slalom skiers on the U.S. Ski Team, ranking only two spots behind Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety. Chodounsky is also the only person on the U.S. alpine team to have earned his college degree before making the team.
It’s an unusual route to the USST. Alpine skiing team nomination criteria are based on both rank and age, which doesn’t make it easy for college graduates, who are typically 22 or 23 years old. To make the team at age 23, skiers must meet the more stringent B Team criteria: a top 60 world ranking in slalom, giant slalom, super G or downhill, or top 60 place on the FIS World Cup start list on one of those disciplines. To achieve a top 60 ranking, skiers must travel to far more races than college students typically have time for during a school year.
Most skiers on the USST make the team either during or after high school. But Chodounsky’s talent in the gates had yet to shine through in high school.
“When I was little, I always watched the world cup when it was televised in the U.S.,” he said. “I wanted to be there. It was always in my mind to get there. But I wasn’t really a strong candidate in high school.”
Instead, Chodounsky went to Dartmouth College, where he flourished. Freshman year, he won the 2005 NCAA slalom title. After double majoring in geology and engineering, earning his B.A. in 2008, and winning the U.S. national slalom title in 2009 — beating two-time Olympian Jimmy Cochran — he finally make the U.S. Ski Team.
Now Chodounsky is a rising star on the U. S. team’s squad of slalom skiers aiming for his first Olympic Winter Games. He would also like to step onto a world cup podium this season; he finished the 2013 season ranked 21st overall in slalom.
“I think it’s there,” he said by phone recently. “I have the speed to do it. I’m 29 now. I feel like it’s time to step up and make something happen.”
The route to the world cup for the soft-spoken Chodounsky began in St. Paul, Minn. His parents, Martin and Anna Chodounsky, had emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1980. Mr. Chodounsky had ski raced for the Czech Army, so when David was old enough to ski, his dad took him to Buck Hill. Coach Eric Sailer saw talent in the young Chodounsky, and soon he was training alongside Lindsey Vonn who’s the same age.
Four years later, the Chodounskys moved to Crested Butte, Colo. It was about the same time Vonn moved to Vail, Colo., and Mr. Chodounsky recalled that Sailer was not very happy about losing young talent — “But it was best for the kids,” said Mr. Chodounsky.
A teenage David enrolled at Crested Butte Academy, where he was a good ski racer. But not good enough to meet the criteria for the U.S. development team.
So he applied to college, choosing Dartmouth as a long shot — an Ivy League college with a great ski team. He applied “just to apply” with no expectation that he would be accepted.
Dartmouth at the time was stacked with three consecutive NCAA Division I slalom champions: Roger Brown (2002), Brad Wall (2003) and Paul McDonald (2004). Brown and McDonald would go on to make the U.S. Ski Team after college. Racing for his native Australia, Wall had already competed in the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games and would compete again in 2006 in Torino.
Chodounsky was accepted, but then deferred for a year and trained in Europe.
Still, when he entered Dartmouth in the fall of 2004, he wasn’t on the ski racing radar. Then in his first college race, he shined, finishing second in a giant slalom. A week later, he won a collegiate slalom.
He credits his Dartmouth teammates with his breakthrough.
“Being able to train with those guys and experience that pace and see what those guys were doing and being able to apply it to my own skiing, that had the biggest impact,” he said. “That brought my skiing to a whole new level.”
Others credited his hard work and technique. Dartmouth coach Peter Dodge once described Chodounsky as “an incredibly smooth skier, just a beautiful skier.”
|David Chodounsky racing to his first collegiate slalom win for
Dartmouth at Smugglers’ Notch in January 2005 in Cambridge, Vt.
(credit: Andrew Shinn)
That March, Chodounsky won the 2005 NCAA slalom title. In 2007, he captained Dartmouth to its first
NCAA team title in 31 years and took second in slalom. He finished his college career with the slalom bronze in 2008.
After graduating, he was skiing too well to give up on his world cup dreams. But ranked 83rd in slalom, he would have to race his way onto the team. He decided to give himself two years to make it, skiing as a one-man team — paying his own way and getting himself to races across North America and Europe.
“It was a lot of couch surfing and scrapping around, going to friends’ houses,” he said.
“When David finished college, I was a little skeptical about all the difficulties [of ski racing on his own],” said Mr. Chodounsky. “But he was decided, so I figured go for it.”
In the spring of 2009, Chodounsky traveled to Alaska to compete at U.S. nationals. A win would bump his world rank into the top 60. He came from behind in slalom and beat Cochran by 0.38 for the victory.
Since then, Chodounsky has made fairly steady progress, earning his first FIS World Cup start in December 2009. A month later, he almost made the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team.
“It was a battle between me, Nolan [Kasper], Paul McDonald, Will Brandenburg and Tim Kelley,” he said. “We were all battling for one spot [in slalom]. I had some opportunities in world cups and just didn’t quite capitalize on it.”
Kasper made the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team in the final world cup before the team was named.
The next season, Chodounsky scored his first world cup points and even beat world cup winner Marcel Hirscher in a NorAm slalom.
Then after dislocating his kneecap during dry-land training before the first race in 2011, Chodounsky cut his season short and had surgery to clean up the damaged cartilage.
Last winter, he experienced another breakthrough. He had several blistering runs, including the second-fastest second run in the Adelboden World Cup slalom last January. He finished 10th, one spot ahead of Ligety, for his first career world cup top-10.
Just like at Dartmouth, Chodounsky credits both good coaching and his teammates — Kasper, Brandenburg and Ligety — who set a fast pace in training and from whom he can learn. His coaches continue to notice his hard work. After the first slalom world cup last November, where Chodounsky finished the first run 13th (the top American), coaches were impressed by the strength he gained in the gym over the summer.
Now Chodounsky needs to carry his training speed into races and have two consistent runs.
“We have a lot of good young guys on the ski team who are super fast in training,” said Ligety. “It’s just a matter of those guys putting together a couple races here and there where they can get that confidence rolling, and they can know they’re in a place where they can ski amongst the fastest guys.”
In August, Chodounsky was the fastest guy in three races in New Zealand, including the Australian National Championships. He also finished second in two other races Down Under. With the first FIS World Cup slalom one month away, he is happy with his consistency.
“I’m in a good spot at a good time,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I was skiing my best ever, which is fine. I have stuff to work on. But I am skiing well.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.