Olympic Ski Hopeful Picks Another Trail
INTERVIEW HILARY LINDH
| HAKUBA, JAPAN
At the pinnacle of a 13-year career on the United States Ski Team, Hilary Lindh has announced her retirement.
The news came last week at a World Cup event in Vail, Colo. Its timing may have seemed curious to some, coming as it did less than a year away from the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
Her coach had hoped she'd stay on, figuring she was a top American hope for a medal.
Lindh, however, looks at things differently despite having recently won a World Championship gold medal in Sestriere, Italy.
"This year's results mean nothing for next year's race," she says. "If anything, it can put added pressure on someone, especially [Russia's Warwara] Zelenskaja [since she won a recent race in Nagano]. Some people may be able to turn that success into confidence without getting psyched out. It just depends. Basically, you can't predict ski races, no matter what's happened before."
Before her retirement was made public, Lindh weighed the issues. "[The decision] has to come from inside me. I can't decide to ski for somebody else. It has to come from the heart."
After a lackluster period in her career, Lindh surprised the world of skiing by winning a silver medal at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. She then focused on improving her overall World Cup results, during the annual winter racing series.
"That's really what it's all about, supposedly - well, for the Europeans that's the big thing. They don't really respect anything else. I'm glad I didn't get the gold, because I didn't deserve it. I wouldn't have known how to handle it, and probably would have quit skiing right then," she says.
Doesn't an Olympic medal win respect? "No," Lindh shakes her head resignedly, "because that's just one race."
For those who have known Lindh, it's difficult to imagine her doing anything but skiing. She put her first pair of skis on at age 2, and started racing at 7.
She is a third-generation Alaskan whose grandparents moved to Juneau three years before the territory became a state. Lindh learned to ski long before chairlifts or ticket lines were built on the slopes of the city's surrounding mountains.
"I used to dream about going to the Olympics and winning a gold medal," she says, "I had no idea what that meant, but I thought that would be pretty cool.
"There was a long learning process I guess in even finding out what it entailed because I had no idea there was anything like World Cup races.
"We were pretty secluded up in Alaska, we didn't have access to that like most kids."
At 15, Lindh went from prodigy to national competitor, transferring to Rowmark Ski Academy in Park City, Utah. A three-time Olympic team member, she has also won three national titles, a World Championship bronze, and a number of top-three World Cup finishes at individual stops on the circuit.
Like many young athletes, Lindh's teammate, Picabo Street, aggressively turns her name and almost identical credentials into lucrative product endorsements.
Even top women skiers without Picabo's name recognition who regularly finish in the top 15 can earn healthy six-figure incomes.
Lindh half-heartedly sought endorsements, but chose to pursue her education instead.
Every spring Lindh trades in her skis for school books at the University of Utah, where she is pursuing her bachelor's degree.
It is something she says few other skiers do, and only two people in the recent history of the US team have graduated while on the team.
Education is important to Lindh's family, especially her grandparents. Her grandfather, the senior judge on the US Court of Appeals for the ninth Circuit, expected Hilary to continue the family tradition at Cornell University.
"I would have been about a fourth generation Cornellian. Who knows, maybe I'll go to graduate school there.
"Aside from education being important to my parents and grandparents, I personally care a lot about it. I don't like to feel unproductive and I like to exercise my brain a little. Also, I'm obviously fairly goal-oriented, so there's always something I want to learn more about or improve. Basically, I get bored if I don't have some kind of challenge."
And then there's the question of her quality of life.
"I think you just get to the point where finally your priorities change. It's not that I don't love ski racing anymore, but there are so many other things I want to do. The most exciting thing is not knowing exactly what those things are."