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Teen Skier Saylor O’Brien Cruises Into World Championships Debut In Spain

By Paul D. Bowker | Jan. 20, 2023, 4:36 a.m. (ET)

O'Brien smiles for camera at 2022 Huntsman Cup. Credit: Dave Obzansky/ National Ability Center 

 

Saylor O’Brien won a pair of alpine skiing world cup medals earlier this month on the way to her world championships debut.

 

It was the perfect way for her to prepare for the biggest competition of her young career.

 

“It was a very indescribable moment,” said O’Brien, a 19-year-old from Woodland, Utah, who competes in the women’s sitting classification. “I felt very eager to do better every race run, but I felt all over the place about it.”

 

O’Brien won a bronze medal in the giant slalom in her first world cup race on Jan. 10 in Veysonnaz, Switzerland. Three days later, she finished second in the slalom to win a silver medal.

 

“I definitely experienced some challenges that week,” O’Brien said, “so it was the best to end on slalom, which is my favorite, and have some fun doing it. The silver medal was undoubtedly the cherry on top.”

 

O’Brien is one of nine U.S. skiers competing in the 2023 FIS Para Alpine World Ski Championships in Espot, Spain, which start on Saturday. She is the only non-Paralympian on the U.S. team, although that was by choice.

 

O’Brien qualified for the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 as an 18-year-old, but she chose to sit out and gain more experience for the 2026 Winter Games in Milano and Cortina, Italy.

 

“I had spent the last six years working very hard for Beijing and qualified to go, but made the absolute most challenging decision of my entire life not to attend but felt I should wait a little longer,” she said. “So right now I’m just trying to find some hunger to keep me going and keep advancing my skiing day by day and run by run.

 

“I’m really stoked about the future opportunities and experiences that will get me there.”

 

Among those upcoming opportunities are this year’s world championships, which run through Jan. 29. O’Brien is scheduled to compete in the women’s giant slalom on Jan. 25, the slalom on Jan. 27 and the parallel event on Jan. 29.

 

“I don’t have any particular goals other than to finish my races and be content and happy with my skiing progressions,” she said. “This is one of the so many firsts for me so I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself. Things will be exactly how they are supposed to be.”

 

Joining O’Brien in the women’s events are Laurie Stephens, a seven-time Paralympic medalist in the sitting class, and Allie Johnson, a 2022 Paralympian who won a gold, two silvers and a bronze in the standing class at Veysonnaz.

 

Thomas Walsh, who captured a silver in the men’s standing giant slalom last year for the only U.S. alpine medal at the Beijing Winter Games, is among six U.S. men competing at the world championships. Joining him are 2022 Paralympic teammates Andrew Haraghey, Jesse Keefe, Patrick Halgren, Ravi Drugan and Matthew Brewer.

 

The world championships begin with competition in the men’s and women’s downhill on Saturday. The super-G is Sunday, followed by the alpine combined Jan. 24 and the start of the giant slalom a day later. It concludes with the slalom and parallel events in its final three days.

 

O’Brien, who was born with spina bifida, has been skiing since she was 4 years old and is a fast-rising star on the U.S. team. After winning a national slalom championship in 2022, she was named to the national team this season.

 

In addition to going after podium finishes as she works toward the Paralympic Games in 2026, O’Brien also hopes her success will help draw attention to a Paralympic class that is often lacking for large numbers of competitors.

 

“I was proud and happy,” O’Brien said of her performances in Veysonnaz, “but sad in the hopes that I have and can inspire other women to be where I am. I hope that in the near future I can be racing with more than three to five women in my category. We need more women representation, especially on the Para side of the sport.”

 

O’Brien has taken pride in skiing for the U.S, and now she has a chance to do feel that on one of the biggest stages the sport has to offer.

 

“I always feel vibrant and spirited when I put my USA race suit on when I’m getting ready,” she said. “A lot of emotions can show up and those are the best to feel right before a race.”

Paul D. Bowker

Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to USParaAlpineSkiing.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.