BY PEGGY SHINN I SEPT. 24, 2013
|Nolan Kasper competes during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup
men's slalom on Feb. 19, 2012 in Bansko, Bulgaria.
When Nolan Kasper skied to a silver medal in a FIS World Cup in March 2011, he joined a small but elite group of U.S. skiers who have earned medals on the world stage in the technical discipline of slalom, including Olympic medalists Billy Kidd and Jimmy Heuga.
It was especially good news for the U.S. Ski Team, which had not had a male slalom skier on the world cup podium since Bode Miller won a silver medal in 2008. And until Miller came along, as well as Ted Ligety, the last time an American male stepped on a world cup slalom podium was 1988, when Felix McGrath finished second to Alberto Tomba in a slalom in Sweden.
When told of the significance of his feat, Kasper said he wasn’t ready to put himself on the list of U.S. ski legends — “But hopefully one day,” he said. Indeed, the future looked bright for the young Vermonter, only 21 at the time and a fellow Burke Mountain Academy graduate like slalom ace Mikaela Shiffrin.
Then Kasper’s skiing hit a few ruts. Literally and figuratively.
His right hip had bothered him during the 2010-11 season, but no big deal. He could ski through the pain. Then training that summer, the cranky hip decided that it had had enough. Diagnosis: a torn labrum and partially torn gluteus medius. He went under the knife that fall.
Recovering quickly, he started the 2011-12 season almost where he left off. At the Beaver Creek World Cup in December 2011 — the first slalom of the season — Kasper finished fourth, less than a quarter second off the podium.
The rest of the season, however, his results were not as consistent. He had a few more top-10s, but he also had races where he failed to earn a second run (only top 30 after the first run get a second run). Still, his results were good enough to rank him 19th in the world.
“I had some good results here and there,” he said by phone during a layover flying back to Park City, Utah, his home away from home. “It was just lack of … I didn’t get as much time on snow as I’d like in the pre-season, so I was skiing inconsistently.”
Worse, his left hip began to bother him. Diagnosis: another torn labrum. He had surgery in the spring.
His dad, Joe Kasper, sensed something else. Mr. Kasper was his son’s first coach, back in young Nolan’s grade school years when the Kaspers lived in New Jersey, and he sensed a slight attitude change in his son. The determination that Nolan had always displayed growing up seemed clouded by frustration and perhaps a lack of focus. Nolan, he said, denied it. But he could still sense something was amiss.
At the first world cup slalom last season, Kasper finished his first run out of the top 30 and didn’t earn a second run.
“Not my day,” he tweeted. “About a month till the next World Cup. Got a lot of work to do...”
He raced Nor-Ams in Colorado without great success, then flew to France for the second world cup slalom in Val d’Isere. Mr. Kasper had a bad feeling. He knew it was snowing heavily in the French Alps. And soft snow does not make for safe race courses.
|Nolan Kasper celebrates in the finish area after his second run
during the men's slalom on the Birds of Prey at the Audi FIS
World Cup on Dec. 8, 2011 in Beaver Creek, Colo.
The next day, Kasper was training in low light and on a soft, rutty course. He reportedly hit a rut and felt his right knee pop. Diagnosis: torn ACL. He flew back to the U.S. and had knee surgery in mid-December.
Former U.S. Ski Team coach Mike Day once said that Kasper doesn’t like to take time off, that he has “an engine that keeps going and going.”
Rather than dive deeper into a pool of frustration, Kasper made the most of his time off the hill. He attended winter quarter at Dartmouth College, where he is now one-third of the way through his college career.
“It was nice to go to school,” Kasper said. “My girlfriend was there. I didn’t really think about skiing. I just focused on my rehab and classes and tried to get as strong as possible.”
On April 12, he tweeted, “Working hard. Right leg strength is about 95% of my left leg strength. Overall, I’m stronger than last year and close to all time high!”
By the end of July, Kasper was back on snow in New Zealand for 21 days, skiing full-length courses in the training camp’s final days.
“Everything is going well,” he reported. “Now it’s at the point where I’m trying to adjust the equipment and get everything going again before we start racing again in November.”
His dad agrees.
“After taking the time off, he’s back to his normal self,” said Mr. Kasper. “He’s really positive, he’s really psyched, and he’s really looking forward to it.”
Helping Kasper’s progress is a very strong men’s technical team, including Ligety, Will Brandenburg, and David Chodounsky. Brandenburg skied the second-fastest slalom and finished 10th overall in the men’s super combined race at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Chodounsky was a regular point-scorer on the world cup last season and recently won two Australian New Zealand Cup races and the Australian national championship slalom.
“It’s awesome [training with] guys who you know can be some of the fastest guys in the world,” said Kasper. “In New Zealand, I could time against Ted, Will and Daver. And I could see how I was doing with the amount of time I’ve had on snow.”
Looking ahead, Kasper seems mostly focused on his rehab progression and perfecting his form in the gates — “so I can progress more,” he said. With two more on-snow camps this fall and only two world cup slaloms before the New Year, time is on his side.
He is not really thinking about the Sochi Games yet; he has only tweeted #roadtosochi twice since hurting his knee last December. But Mr. Kasper is so confident that his son will make it that he has already purchased airline tickets to Sochi.
After all, Kasper was named to the 2010 U.S. Olympic Alpine Skiing Team after competing in only three world cup races. In Vancouver, he was the youngest member of the U.S. men’s alpine squad and finished a solid 24th in slalom.
“I’ve been there once, I know what I need to do to get there again,” Kasper said, then paused briefly. “To qualify again would be amazing.”
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.