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Meet The Unsung Hero Of The U.S. Para Alpine Ski Team

By Steve Drumwright | Aug. 01, 2022, 11:43 a.m. (ET)

A.J. Hoelke poses with Team USA's Thomas Walsh at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)

For a guy who grew up far away from the mountains, A.J. Hoelke has certainly made a name for himself in the downhill skiing industry.

 

The 26-year-old originally from New Berlin, Wisconsin, just outside of Milwaukee, isn’t one of the Americans you will find on the weekly world cup leaderboards, but he is one of the reasons why Team USA skiers are up there.

 

Hoelke is the lone service technician for the U.S. Para alpine ski team. He is the person the athletes rely on to ensure the equipment they depend on to get from the top of the mountain to the finish line is tuned to the conditions and able to get those crucial tenths of a second to beat the competition.

 

Typically, Hoelke is taking care of about nine athletes across as many as five disciplines: downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G and super combined. On the Para team, that includes considering whether the athlete is in the standing, sitting or visually impaired field.

 

Entering his second season with the Para team, Hoelke said there is one key element that helps to make him very good at his job: trust.

 

“Everybody prefers something different (in their setup), and the biggest thing I found this year is you have to build relationships with every athlete, and they have to trust you because these guys are going, like in downhill, upwards of 50 mph,” Hoelke said. “They need to turn on a dime. And there’s got to be trust there when they go to the start gate — and that’s usually where I’m at on race days. Building confidence is big in how I view my job.”

 

That trust is built in many ways. While being present at the starting gate is one, Hoelke’s working hours continue after the day’s races or practice sessions (often going until midnight), when he talks with the athletes to learn what they are looking for. He also spends time getting to know the individual through casual conversations during meals.

 

Skiing has been a passion for Hoelke since he was a kid. His family would take ski trips each winter to a major destination, including Jackson Hole, Wyoming, or one of the venues in California and Colorado. He kept at it through high school and skiing with friends. Hoelke started working at Alpine Valley, just southwest of Milwaukee in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, on the junior ski patrol, so he was able to ski without having to fork out for a season pass.

 

“I realized there was a whole industry (in skiing) and something I wanted to do in my life,” Hoelke said.

 

Through one of his co-workers, Hoelke ended up going to Gogebic Community College in Ironwood, Michigan, for its ski management program. The tiny city in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula had its own hill that the school used to teach the inner workings of the ski business.

 

Hoelke already had a sense for some of the business through Alpine Valley — fixing lifts, driving snowcats — so this rounded out what was missing: working in the shop on skis. As he finished up at Gogebic, one of his professors mentioned that the U.S. ski team had an internship available. Following a two-hour phone conversation with the coach at the time, Sasha Rearick, he was offered the spot.

 

While Hoelke had watched Olympic skiing on TV, he hadn’t followed the world cup or had any knowledge about racing. That was one issue. The other was that Rearick told Hoelke to buy a plane ticket and meet the team in New Zealand in a few months. Hoelke “was broke,” as many college kids are, and so he worked hard that summer to cover the airfare and join the team.

 

The internship would be the first part of satisfying his desire to travel the world. He spent the next few months of the 2016-17 season traveling Europe and getting a “crash course in professional ski racing.”

 

“I fell in love with it and kind of wasn’t really sure where to go and had a little bit of guidance to kind of go learn how to work in a ski shop,” Hoelke said. “Finish the internship and learn how to grind skis, learn the pre-work before skis really hit the snow.”

 

He moved to the Vail Valley area of Colorado and worked at a ski shop there for a year before rejoining Team USA with the snowboardcross team. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, that sidelined any international travel and duties with Team USA, so he worked at a ski shop in Beaver Creek, Colorado, where he met Thomas Walsh, a Para alpine skier who went on to win a giant slalom silver medal at the Winter Paralympic Games Beijing 2022

 

Working with Para athletes means different impacts on the equipment. For some, it means using just one ski, thus the athlete’s entire weight — not to mention athletic maneuvers — puts greater stress on the equipment. One athlete who keeps Hoelke in his shop is Andrew Kurka, a three-time Paralympian with one gold and one silver.

 

“He’s hard on his equipment,” Hoelke said. “He’s a full send. I can’t complain, though, that’s kind of been a fun one.”

Steve Drumwright

Steve Drumwright is a journalist based in Murrieta, California. He is a freelance contributor to USParaAlpineSkiing.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.