MERIBEL – When Paula Moltzan finished second behind Mikaela Shiffrin for the U.S. ski team’s first 1-2 finish in a women’s World Cup slalom in more than half a century, it was easy to assume that her more successful teammate was her main inspiration.
Actually, it’s another American skier who Moltzan still looks up to the most: Lindsey Vonn.
It’s nothing against Shifrin, it’s just that Moltzan grew up skiing on the same hill in Minnesota where Vonn learned to race.
Both of her parents were ski instructors at Buck Hill and Moltzan moved into the elite program led by Vonn’s former coach, Erich Sailer, when she was 12.
“Lindsey has been an idol of mine my entire career. She’s so jaw droppingly inspiring,” Moltzan said. “Obviously, Mikaela is as well, but first and foremost for me Lindsey is an icon in my life.”
Moltzan still remembers the first time she met Vonn.
“She signed a poster for me when I was at Buck Hill. I was probably like 13 or 14,” Moltzan said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It was pretty awesome.”
A year or two earlier, Moltzan first met Shiffrin, who is 11 months younger than her.
“I’ve been Mikaela’s teammate for a really long time. I got sent a picture of us on the podium when we were at Whistler Cup when we were 12 or 13 so we’ve been skiing together for our whole life,” Moltzan said, referring to a big junior race in Canada.
“We’ve had ebbs and flows of our relationship,” Moltzan said, adding that Shiffrin is now “a great friend to me.”
But while Shiffrin is two wins away from eclipsing Ingemar Stenmark as the most successful World Cup skier of all time, Moltzan has only established herself among the world’s elite in recent seasons despite becoming a world junior champion in slalom eight years ago.
With that second-place finish behind Shiffrin in Semmering, Austria, in December, combined with three fifth-place results this season, Moltzan has just joined Shiffrin in the top seven of the slalom start-list rankings — which gives her a big advantage by being able to ski on a cleaner course at the start of races.
“That’s been a dream of mine since I was a little kid, so it’s a big box to check for me,” Moltzan said.
Moltzan’s first race with that top-seven status will be her biggest event of the season, at the world championships, where the women’s slalom will be held on Saturday.
First, though, Moltzan has three other races she wants to excel in at worlds: team parallel on Tuesday, individual parallel on Wednesday and giant slalom on Thursday. It’s a run of four races in five days.
While Shiffrin won’t compete because it’s an event that’s hard on her back and she wants to focus on her individual events, the United States still has a strong squad in the team event with Moltzan joined by Nina O’Brien, River Radamus and Tommy Ford.
Moltzan, especially, excels at parallel racing. In her three career individual races in the discipline, she has one second-place result and a fourth-place finish at the last worlds.
So why is she such a beast in parallel?
“I’m super hyper competitive. You can ask my teammates: I hate to lose training. I hate to lose anything,” she said. “So it’s just having that competitor right next to you in your peripherals. It just pushes me harder to ski fast, ski hard.
"And it’s kind of the perfect combination between slalom and GS. I started off as a slalom (skier), have now built into a GS skier and I think parallel is that perfect in-between ground.”
Moltzan competed strongly in the parallel team event at the Olympics and was the top American in both slalom (eighth) and giant slalom (12th) in Beijing — all despite skiing with a broken left hand. But nobody seemed to notice because Shiffrin surprisingly didn’t finish either the slalom or the GS.
Moltzan broke her hand in mid-December last season but didn’t get it repaired until May.
“It was really painful for that whole time,” she said. “(But) you just learn to build a lot of resilience. As a ski racer, little parts of your body are always hurting and sometimes it’s mind over matter. We have 1 minute to 1:30 runs and I think you can teach yourself to endure a little bit of pain for that long.”
Earlier in her career, Moltzan wasn't willing to push herself that hard, and consequently lost her spot on the U.S. team in 2016 because of poor results.
So she enrolled at the University of Vermont and won the NCAA slalom title a year later. While still at UVM in 2018, she finished 17th in the World Cup slalom down the road at Killington, giving her enough World Cup points to head back over to Europe and resume World Cup racing.
Only she still wasn’t part of the U.S. team, meaning she and then-boyfriend Ryan Mooney — who is still her ski technician and unofficial coach, as well as her husband after getting married in September — had to raise $50,000 on their own to travel and compete across the Alps.
“It’s a performance driven sport,” explained U.S. Alpine director Patrick Riml. “At some point you got to ask the question, ’Does the athlete want it? Do they have the potential?'”
Moltzan acknowledges that she was immature during her first stint with the team.
“I grew up a lot when I went to university,” she said. “So I don’t hold any grudge or resentment toward the U.S. team. They did what they had to do and I did what I had to do.”
During her three years of college, Moltzan majored in biology with a chemistry minor. But that's on hold now.
“You only get to be a professional athlete once,” she said. “So when I’m done skiing, I’ll go back to school and do my last year.”
Then maybe medical school.
“It’s a lot of school and a lot of work,” she said. “But I put in a lot of work into a lot of things in my life. … Step by step.”
Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf
More AP skiing: https://apnews.com/hub/skiing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports