Audrey Crowley poses with a gold medal (Photo courtesy of Audrey Crowley)
At 14 years old, Audrey Crowley isn’t old enough to be on the U.S. national para alpine team.
You have to be 15 for that, and Crowley’s birthday isn’t until March.
But as a newly-crowned national champion in both the women’s standing slalom and giant slalom, it’s safe to say that it’s only a matter of time before Crowley’s career as an international ski racer begins. Even with her success so far, however, the talented teen is taking it all in stride.
“I don’t say (I’m a national champion) a lot because hopefully there are more to come,” she said. “I can always get better and do better with my skiing. So I don’t say it too often, but it’s still pretty cool that it’s out there, and knowing that I’m a national champion is kind of crazy to think about.”
Crowley, who was born without the lower half of her right arm, tried skiing for the first time as a 2-year-old at a tiny mountain near her hometown in Wisconsin. She didn’t exactly love the family pastime at first, her dad said, but by the age of three she started to take to the sport.
“And she took to it fast,” Steve Crowley said.
She competed in her first race at age four, and even though she could barely make a turn and came in dead last, Crowley remembers feeling so happy at the finish.
Before long she was not only racing but also winning, and local news outlets began to pick up on the speedy little ski racer with one arm.
“There was this one video, and we didn’t know they were doing this, but they (put a microphone on) her,” Steve said. “She was seven at the time, and as she was skiing she was humming. We had no idea she hummed when she skied. But you hum when you’re happy. She was just so comfortable.”
During Crowley’s U10 skiing season — competing, as she always has, against able-bodied peers — she won not only every race she entered, but also every run. After that perfect season, the family decided it was time to make a move, not only for Audrey’s racing career but also her older sister’s. In 2017, they moved to Colorado to join Ski & Snowboard Club Vail, the highly-respected program where such Olympic athletes as Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn once honed their skills.
Crowley’s skiing career didn’t quite go as planned after the family relocated.
First she broke her arm, and then a month after getting back on the snow she broke her leg.
“It’s very hard for a one-armed kid to be on crutches,” Steve said. “Now you have a little girl who’s very upset, in a wheelchair. She was mad and sad and not confident. She thought every time she was going to get on the hill she was going to break something.”
Crowley remembers her first time on skis after her leg healed. She was sobbing on the chair lift, she said, afraid to make a turn and drained of her confidence.
It took a while to get past that feeling. In fact, it wasn’t until this season that she finally felt comfortable again.
“It’s kind of hard to explain, but this year something clicked in my brain after quarantine,” she said. “I did a lot of at-home workouts and I’ve gotten really strong, which helped my skiing. That gave me the confidence to know that even if I crash it doesn’t mean I’m going to get hurt every time. And getting hurt is part of the sport. You see girls like Lindsey Vonn, they got hurt all the time. You have to build the muscles in your body as well as in your brain to know that you’ll be OK no matter what happens.”
Crowley didn't start racing against other para athletes until about three years ago, she said. She competed at nationals for the first time in 2019 but didn’t reach the podium. This past March she was nearly 16 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher in giant slalom and more than 32 seconds faster than the next closest skier in the slalom.
When she’s not skiing, Crowley’s usually hanging out with her friends from the team, eating ice cream and shopping. She also plays golf and softball and is a dedicated student who loves history and science.
She hopes to one day compete in the Paralympics, although she said it’s hard to imagine that because it’s too “crazy to think about.”
But, displaying a wisdom beyond her years, Crowley said that’s not her only goal with the ski racing.
“I want to be able to travel a lot,” she said. “I enjoy traveling and I think if I get nominated to the (national) team it would be really cool to experience all those other countries and meet all those people. I also want to get other disabled girls and boys into the sport and have a wider field, because right now it’s kind of tiny. And I want to have fun doing it. I don’t want to take it too seriously. I think the only way to get better or stay good is to have fun and love what you’re doing. If you take it too seriously you’ll stress yourself out.”